|Jacket 38 — Late 2009||Jacket 38 Contents page||Jacket Homepage||Search Jacket|
This piece is about 15 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Jonathan Williams Estate and Richard Owens and Jacket magazine 2009. See our [»»] Copyright notice.
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/38/jwd06-iv-jw-ivb-owens.shtml
Back to the Jonathan Williams Contents list
For nearly two years beginning in early 2006 I had the rare privilege of working with the Jonathan Williams / Jargon Society archive in the Poetry and Rare Books Collection at the University at Buffalo. Throughout this period I spent any number of hours in the calm of the closed stacks sorting through dozens of previously unopened boxes, tasked with the responsibility of separating the choice from the chaff — print proofs, manuscript drafts of poems or literary correspondence from telephone bills, cigar wrappers, supermarket circulars and such. The experience was a humbling one that underscored for me the extent to which Williams was indeed a living library. Later, when word circulated in March 2008 that he was finally gone, it was thus consoling to see CA Conrad appropriately acknowledge this: “It’s like a library burned itself to the ground while we were sleeping.”
Any archive is necessarily incomplete and the library that contains it even more so. Rather than calling our attention to what is present the materials within an archive generate distance, becoming increasingly unfamiliar. Further, in Williams’ case — with his literary archive housed at the University at Buffalo, his photography archive at the Beinecke and his correspondence to dozens of poets, artists and photographers scattered across a comparable number of libraries — Williams himself was the living institution through which one might approach these incomplete and spatially dispersed materials. And so it was the incomplete character of the archive and the scattered state of his papers that persuaded me to arrange the following interview and address questions the archive raised but refused to answer. More casual than formal or rigorous, the following conversation is transcribed from a phone interview with Jonathan Williams conducted Friday afternoon, June 1, 2007.
— Richard Owens
RO: You did a lot of hiking. I know you covered 1500 miles of the Appalachian Trail and you’ve done a lot of hiking in the north of England…
JW: Yeah, and all over France. Not all over, but I mean quite a lot in France. A certain amount in Spain. A certain amount in Italy. And a lot in the Black Forest. As they say, I used to get around.
RO: Mike Basinski mentioned that you were going to devote some time to the Tour de France.
JW: Oh, I love to watch that. That mainly occupies my daytimes during the month of July. Comes just after Wimbledon. Well I always have been kind of a sports nut, so I’m glad to be able to see these things.
RO: I think that’s interesting. George Bowering was just in town and he delivered a reading last night. I think he’s drawing perhaps off Jack Spicer — but he’s wildly interested in sports. And you’re a poet that also holds sports central. They often seem to enter into your work. So maybe you can say something about the role of baseball in some of the work you’ve done. I think it was yesterday I was looking through Long Taters and the Yogi Berra quotes that pop up every once in a while…
JW: Yeah, well it’s a game that makes very good sense and I’ve always been interested in it. I guess I went to my first major league game when I was quite young. It was the late ’30s and I was… well, let’s see. Not Babe Ruth. He either retired or wasn’t playing anymore. Lou Gehrig was playing that day. So it was a pretty long time ago. And Spicer is fanatical about baseball. I guess I share some of that.
RO: You were among the first to actually champion Spicer and see him as an important figure long before he was given much attention. You were supportive all along and there’s of course that gorgeous photograph of Spicer that you took. He’s standing, I believe, on timber…
JW: Yes, large timber. Up in the redwood country. I’ve got other good pictures of Jack. I’ve got probably about five or six quite good Polaroids. As I may have said at some point earlier, Yale has acquired all of my photographic archive. They’ve acquired the transparencies, Polaroids, etc, etc. So we’re in the process of getting that into their hands at the moment. It’ll be at the library there. What is it called?
RO: The Beinecke?
JW: Beinecke. Can’t even spell it probably.
RO: You know, I have this impulse to try and discuss everything and you’ve had a hand in everything… I’ve been reading through a lot of the interviews you’ve done over the years and they all seem to focus on Jargon and I wanted to kind of try and move away from that and explore different areas… It seems to me that central figures for you in your poetry have been Mahler, Bruckner and then Charles Ives and a couple of other folks.
JW: Yeah. Yeah. That’s true. I’ve been listening to a lot of late Romantic work lately. But then I never like to forget the jazz that I was brought up listening to. I went to New Orleans a number of times to catch up on that scene. And I spent a lot of time in the ’40s and ’50s in New York listening to jazz. So I kind of got around in those days, as they say. You know, I love jazz almost as much as anything else. But I never got very interested in pop music, I must confess. I haven’t really listened to anything much after those kind of mild days of people like the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. That’s about the last pop music I listened to. I just don’t know what’s going on with all this stuff that they play these days. Don’t like it.
RO: Do you continue to collect?
JW: To some extent. Again, not like I did. Well, I’ve got a big collection. I won’t run out of things to listen to for a long time. I just reencountered, for instance, a composer I’ve been ignoring for about twenty years. Isaac Albeniz. He doesn’t seem to get much attention anymore, except for his one big glorious piece called Iberia which started out in life as twelve piano pieces and then he had them orchestrated. It’s a stunning work. Since I’m not living in a city with any decent record stores, I don’t know. I think there used to be one in either Durham or Chapel Hill. I think that was about the only one in North Carolina that you would bother with. There’s nothing much available. And I guess there are even less stores now than there used to be. Places like Atlanta! Another reason not to go to Atlanta. There are probably no decent record stores at all anymore. That’s a miserable place these days, I think. It’s all I can do to watch the Braves play baseball. They’re doing a little better than they might this year.
RO: How did you get drawn into the Army? It seems through interviews and other mention of it you were drawn into the Army by means of conscription.
JW: Yeah, I was drafted.
RO: During the Korean conflict?
JW: Yeah, I was at Black Mountain. It must have been about 1952 or something like that. I took a conscientious objector stance and got nowhere with that because it wasn’t supported by the quote peace church. I went to an Episcopal school and was brought up that way. But I got no support from that church and I should have known better than to try the Roman Catholics. They were of no use. Finally, the only person who gave me any support when I was actually in the medical corps was a man with a wonderful name: Chaplin Kaplan. He was great. I don’t know where it was, which Army base, but anyway they were going to probably stick me in jail if I wasn’t careful and he said, well don’t be ridiculous. Leave this man alone and transfer him to… Oh, when I was going to be transferred to the medics he was very instrumental in helping there. So, you know, I had a very successful military time. That was mostly in Germany. I was assigned to Stuttgart which was a wonderful place to be. That’s when I published some of the first Jargon books.
RO: How were you able to do that? Did you locate a letterpress printer? It’s really astonishing that you bring out the first Jargon books in Stuttgart.
JW: Well, it was, again, a bit of luck. I had any number of New Directions books. And just by looking at random here and there I discovered that one of the printers he was using was located in a suburb of Stuttgart. They were doing really excellent printing in those days. Laughlin, I guess, got tired of spending a lot of money. Back in the ’40s and ’50s he had some beautiful editions. Some of the best came from a firm called Doctor Kantz and the hospital I worked in was less than a ten minute walk from his plant. So I made myself known and told him that I had a book or two that I’d be interested in trying to publish. So that was a lucky thing that happened there. Who could have counted on that? And then I found two or three other printers, one more in Stuttgart and one in the village of Karlsruhe and I did a Patchen book out there with them that turned out pretty well. Well, like Olson’s Maximus Poems I suppose is the best thing we did in Germany. Maybe the best of all is a book of Louis Zukofsky’s called Some Time. I can’t do any better than that. So anyway, being a corpsman in a locked psychiatric ward one of the things I did to stay awake at night was read proofs and read scripts and it was helpful. Didn’t want to fall asleep necessarily. Some of those guys were mean. They were very — oh, what’s the word they use—antisocial is the word I believe they use. But I was delighted to have all that stuff. I had a lot of spare time. I guess they gave us more time off than most people because we were under a certain amount of threat of being, you know, knocked in the head. So then I was able to go from Stuttgart down to places like Zurich where there was some interesting artists and interesting printers.
RO: Were you able to — well, I was wondering about this before. For as much as you love Mahler were you able to see any of the great conductors perform Mahler in Germany at that time? Klemperer or Horenstein or that sort of thing?
JW: Yeah, I saw Klemperer I think in London. Horenstein I think is a terrific conductor but I never saw him live. One or two of his Mahler performances I think are not to be equaled. The Third, the Mahler Third, is terrific. Oh, I’ve heard — let me see. There were one or two others at that time. Not sure I’m remembering very well today. But Stuttgart was very good for music. A lot of concerts. A lot of free stuff. A lot of very good church concerts that you could go to for nothing. There was the chamber orchestra, the Stuttgart chamber orchestra, which was one of the best in its day. There was one or two very good Bruckner conductors in those days. Let’s see. Who would that be? He did a cycle, one of the earlier cycles.
JW: No. It’s later than that. But I mean he recorded everything. All of the symphonies. He was very good, this man.
RO: You seem to have had your finger on the pulse of not only music but art and you weren’t in your thirties, you were in your mid twenties and you knew precisely what was happening and you had a sense of what was important and what was not. Again, just looking through your papers and the various gallery exhibits you attended in the ’50s in New York and reading the correspondence to and from you really underscores the fact that you knew what was going on.
JW: Well, I was lucky enough to be… I guess growing up in Washington D.C. was a very good thing. I went to a lot of music there. And then when I got out of school, out of St. Albans school, you know when I went to Princeton there were other opportunities. Then, of course, I was in New York, oh, three or four years and that didn’t hurt. Well I’ve always, like they say, been interested in things. I’m glad I didn’t start out life in Atlanta. My grandparents had been in Atlanta. Happily my mother married and moved to Washington. A great place. Think of the number of museums available. Again, lots of them for free. And the Freer. Wonderful Chinese/ Japanese collections. One of the best in the world. I used to go to the Freer quite a lot. I don’t know. There was no excuse to be all that ignorant if you just kind of paid a little attention.
RO: Your father’s collection of Chinese vases — Ming and T’ang dynasty — is that…
JW: It’s within sight as I talk to you in a corner of the living room here. It’s quite a beautiful collection. It was, I guess, put together in the middle of the 1940s. And that’s when he did most of his collecting. Again, living in Washington, there were very good auction houses there and lots of collectors were in the diplomatic service of one country or another and, you know, they got stationed somewhere else and sometimes they got rid of their holdings. So had access to some very good things. And the friendship of some of the curators at the Smithsonian and the Freer Gallery. They would help him and educate him. Lots to know. But yeah, it’s a lovely collection. I’m going to hang onto that one. It goes very well with the house. The house is like so much else. Its kind of a hodge podge, but a good kind of hodge podge. So you get that Chinese material. We have a lot of very good French furniture, English furniture, American furniture, Chinese furniture. So all of that is here. I hope in a way that this house can be maintained in some respect, you know. Hence the library is pretty much here. And a big collection downstairs of Outsider art and there’s various other modern art. It would be nice to have that kept intact. Tom Meyer will, of course, attempt to see that this happens. So I hope that comes to pass. But the house itself is fairly remote. It has the views that haven’t been intruded on really. You can see almost nothing but mountains — and in three directions.
RO: Sounds gorgeous.
JW: Well, its not bad, as they say. Today I’m looking out the window hoping to see some rain coming. We haven’t had rain for about a month.
RO: You mentioned Thomas. I’m curious. I think there’s something interesting happening between your own poetic practice and Thomas’ practice as a poet and I wonder if you can talk about how you first encountered one another.
JW: Well, let’s see if I can get that clearly in mind. I think it was… I don’t know. I was talking to a poet named Gerrit Lansing. We were talking, just talking the usual stuff. I said to him at one point, God, I said, I get really tired of these third-rate straight poets. That’s about all you see. Aren’t there any good gay poets? And I said, you know, I said I want to publish some. And Gerrit happened to have met Tom when he was up at Bard college and suggested that I write to him. So I did. I wrote to him and exchanged a couple of letters. And I told him of my desire to publish some gay writers and he said, well I have a manuscript that I can show you. And that was a book called The Bang Book. Have you seen that?
RO: Absolutely. Yep.
JW: Well, that was the first project and I thought that one came out very well. Had nice drawings by my English artist friend John Furnival. So that’s kind of how it started. Like that. Write somebody a letter. And he was, well, tremendously bright for one thing. He comes from around the northwest. His parents and siblings grew up in Seattle. So he’d never really been to the east until he went to Bard. So that’s how it all started, as they say.
RO: So when he went to Bard wasn’t Robert Kelly teaching at that time?
JW: Yes. He had been for just not very many years at that point. Must be there forty-five years by now, or close to it. We went up to a celebration of his fortieth anniversary. That was maybe 2001 or 2002. Yeah. Robert is a wonder to behold. There’s not as much of him as there used to be back in those days. And he’s a tremendously bright guy. He always humbles me. You know a little. I know a little. But it seems like Kelly has read just about everything. I forget who it was that said he was under the impression that he was the last Englishman who had read everything of any interest. I think it’s Thomas Carlyle that claims that and it may have been true. But anyway he [Thomas Meyer] was a student of Robert’s and that was a very good thing for him.
RO: So where did you first meet? Was it up at Bard?
JW: Actually, I was teaching a couple of semesters at something called the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. So I was there. And I heard or read that there was going to be a concert of music by Carl Ruggles.
RO: And he’s a figure that’s important to you. Ruggles.
JW: Yeah. He associated of course with Ives. Anyway, I think it might have been his ninetieth birthday. I believe I’m right on that. It could’ve been maybe a little bit less than that. Let’s say it was his ninetieth birthday and there was going to be this concert at Bennington. A couple of concerts, on a Friday night and a Saturday night or something like that. And I thought to myself, gosh, it’s not all that far to get from Baltimore to Bennington. So I just mentioned that to Tom Meyer and he said, I’d like to go to that, too. So I went slightly out of my way and picked him up at Bard and off we went to Bennington and to those concerts. So that was the occasion. That could be the date. So that was the occasion. Later that year, let me see. We got interested in the idea of living together and we went down to Penland school that winter, in North Carolina, that craft school and spent a couple months there. Anyway, that’s kind of where it all started.
RO: I’m also curious about your poetic practice and the way in which that intersects perhaps with Tom’s practice.
JW: Well, we’ve always kind of written separately in a way, you know. And we don’t discuss too much of what’s going on in either’s work. We obviously pay attention. And Kelly certainly thinks he’s the best that he knows in that generation. He’s always said that. Continues to. And Jargon’s done some good editions of Tom’s. But he’s a much more learned kind of poet than I am. I know a lot of stuff, but… I’m very badly read. Somebody asked me the other day, what do you think of Jane Austen. I said, I don’t know. So, I’m like that about a lot of people.
RO: But you know Ian Hamilton Finlay and his boy Alec Finlay and you’ve really promoted Simon Cutts and other folks.
JW: Well, I have an eye for that or ear for that and it seems I can be more useful doing that than hundreds of people with degrees in Virginia Woolf and whoever else. Let them go. Let them have it. Anyway, I don’t know whether there’s always people as invisible as Simon Cutts in England.
RO: And also Basil Bunting. There’s a very peculiar connection between you and Basil Bunting. You somehow connected with what he was doing and really supported it, promoted it.
JW: Well, we had the good luck to be able to see him quite a lot over a period of about fifteen years. The cottage in England is only about three miles from the Quaker meeting house that he wrote a lot about. Briggflatts. He would go to Quaker meetings there whenever he could get down from the Tyne valley where he was brought up and to the Dales. And once we got established down there he would come and stay with us and a lot of times he would come on a Saturday in time to go to Sunday meeting and then stay the weekend and take advantage of being there and not leave until Sunday afternoon. So anyway, we were able to see a lot of Basil and he was a delight to have as a visitor. He knew a lot about whiskey and one can learn different things from different people. And I loved drinking with him. He’s a great person to drink with. And the fact that he had known Pound as well as he had and any number of other people made him fascinating. So yeah, we miss him. It’s hard to imagine that he died in 1985. Well, he was eighty-five years old that year but that’s beginning to get to be a few years ago. Don’t know what you do with time. I guess you put up with it.
RO: But your relationship to Bunting and other Brits. You really do your best to jump the pond and bridge the gap.
JW: Wasn’t all that far to get to. Like they say, there’s a lot out there. There’s a lot of things to do if you’re lucky enough to have very good health and things of that sort. There it is. That’s one of Basil’s favorite expressions. There it is.
RO: You also published the American poet Alfred Starr Hamilton’s poems which I think is interesting. It was what, Geoff Hewitt that brought you to it, but you saw in Alfred Starr Hamilton something which was sort of important.
JW: Yeah, I was quite taken. He was like discovering some bizarre French poet of the nineteenth century, you know. As I say, I thought there was something quite marvelous about Alfred Starr Hamilton. Even if it comes from New Jersey. I don’t know that part of the world very well at all. But I used to visit over at Dr. Williams’ house. That was the only intimate experience I’ve had in that part of the country.
RO: Again, just looking at your early years at St. Albans, you were connected to poetry in a sort of meaningful way at a very early age. You started reading Patchen at St. Albans. You first encounter poetry yourself at St. Albans…
JW: Well, I don’t think I really did. There was no course. I didn’t take any course. I got onto, as I may have said at an earlier time, I got onto Patchen through a bookstore in New York City. The Argus bookshop run by a man named… let’s see if we get his name… well, the great bookseller of the ’30s and ’40s. First thing I found out, and this is so strange, I found out that this bookshop, the Argus bookshop, was a great place to find the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who I got onto before I got onto Kenneth Patchen. Then I went to the shop and I met the bookman and I said, people tell me that you have some more recent things of some of the writers of poetry and so on. He said, I’m very fond of Kenneth Patchen, of Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, etc, etc. And I said, well, when I get finished with this Lovecraft I’ll come back and get something from you. I was about thirteen or fourteen I guess when that happened. But there was no interest in poetry per se at St. Albans. But I thought I was pretty well educated there. Very, very conservative by nature. And that’s okay. It doesn’t seem like much of an achievement to me, reading The Little Minister. Do you know who wrote that? Sir James Barry. I think he wrote that child’s book. What did James Barry write? Peter Pan. He wrote Peter Pan. So that’s another interesting area. Ben Ingramson was this man’s name, the bookseller. Those were the days when there was some really interesting bookshops around New York. And he was in the Village, in the West Village. He just had great stuff and his prices were very modest. And he had all kinds of contact with those people. He knew Henry Miller quite well. So that was great. It’s not easy to find people like that anymore. I know very few booksellers. I know three or four that I like very much. But having said that I’m not in touch with a lot of them.
RO: You had a strong relationship with Ted Wilentz. And of course there’s the Jargon/ Corinth connection. But even before that weren’t you wrapping books and kind of working at the Eighth Street bookshop.
JW: That’s right. Yeah, I did that. Ted was a really fine person. I liked him a lot and enjoyed working for him. Yeah, I worked in the shop I guess about a year. It must have been the ’50s.
RO: And you appear in The Beat Scene anthology edited by Elias Wilentz. And the Wilentz family at large is just a really interesting sort of thing. I found recently sketches of Basil Bunting by a “J” Wilentz and I’m not entirely sure if they’re by Joan or by John.
JW: I don’t know. Joan does quite a lot of drawing. It’s probably her. I just received one on a postcard within the last week. I guess it was through Ted but — oh, what’s the word — well she owns some of the rights to the Olson poems that the University of California has published. And every once in a while somebody will buy Olson and I’ll get a check for twenty-four dollars and three cents.
RO: Now I’m thinking now about Jammin’ The Greek Scene, the prefatory note that Charles Olson provides for that. I think it’s such a wonderful note. He says a couple of things which in their own sort of way forecast the future on some level regarding your own poetic practice.
JW: Olson is extremely sharp about some things. He has a lot of wonderful remarks. Home truths which I love. The one that I keep coming back to, somebody said, Mr. Olson, you said one time that you make twenty-six dollars a year from poetry. He said, I meant to say in a very good year. Twenty-six dollars from poetry. And I believe him. One time I received a royalty statement from New Directions. Fifteen cents. I framed it. Have it in my library. J. Laughlin was famous for being a little close with his money but that beats anything that I know of. How much did it cost to cut the check? But the point is well taken. Twenty-six dollars from poetry. Olson, as I say, I really enjoyed his presence. We didn’t do as much as we might have. He was rather demanding. And I didn’t have the money. He was asking a little more of me than I could give him.
RO: In what way? As a publisher or as a poet?
JW: As a publisher. We did the Maximus Poems as well as we could possibly have done them. But, you know, not many of them sold.
RO: I’m kind of wondering now about the relationship between music and your own poetic practice. I mentioned this earlier, but Mahler and Ives are central figures to what you do and I’m particularly interested in Charles Ives and his role in your own poetic production.
JW: I guess it’s really based on listening to the music. I had certainly done that a lot. It kind of rubs off, as they say. Now that cloud is going away a little bit now… It would be interesting to know why certain composers or certain pieces are as influential on oneself as they are but I guess from the time I first heard Charles Ives I was really interested and there wasn’t much of it to be heard in those days. Just enough, I guess. Things like the Concord Sonata. That was there. Then the symphonies slowly materialized. The quartets. The songs, which I think are often terrific.
RO: You have the “Celestial Centennial Reverie for Charles Edward Ives” and it’s seems his work on some level determines the way that poem appears…
JW: Well, there’s lots of composers I like to do that with. I’ve thought about trying to do, instead of a Mahler book, a Bruckner book. Maybe I will, if possible. I’m sitting here looking at the sky and finishing off my favorite drink of the season, which is a dirty martini. You put the vermouth in the glass and then you put some ice in. Not that much. And then two big green Spanish olives. You put those in. And then you trail some of the juice, the olive juice, in the glass and that’s that. Its very very tart and sour unlike a regular martini. But I really like them. I usually have one at this time of the day. Don’t think you’d want to drink two or three. It’s pretty strong. But that’s what I do for alcohol during the day. Very tasty.
RO: If you don’t mind, I wonder if you can talk about Ronald Johnson. I’m thinking about your connection to England and Johnson’s first book, Book of the Green Man. That’s a work which seems to me partially informed by your own poetry. His interest in Samuel Palmer and that sort of thing.
JW: Well, that’s correct. We did a lot of walking that particular year together and we were going to see Palmer things. So it’s not surprising he’s talking about what he’s talking about because I was doing it too.
RO: And prior.
JW: Yeah, I was just old enough. Not much older. But I think he turned into quite a good writer. I liked his work at the beginning and I liked it at the end. But this would not be the case with Tom Meyer. You wouldn’t find him following my lead.
RO: How did you first meet Ronald Johnson? What were the circumstances around your first encounter with him?
JW: He was living near DuPont Circle in Washington DC, northwest there along Connecticut Avenue and I can’t spell it out precisely I’m afraid, but he had an apartment and I knew somebody who was looking for an apartment. We knocked on his door and asked him if he could help us, if he knew of anything or anybody. So that was kind of a very casual sort of meeting. And that was in Washington DC. I was living there for about six months so we got to know each other, Ronald and I. Then he came down to North Carolina and spent some time down here and we got along quite well.
RO: So his first jaunt through northern England is with you.
JW: Yeah. That was a good walk.
RO: And of course there’s the other Johnson — Ray Johnson. Recently I was looking through Ray Johnson’s correspondence. We don’t have your side of it, but we have his letters to you at the collection and there are some very dear letters and you were connected to him for quite a long time.
JW: I suppose, but not very closely. I met him as he was passing in and out of Black Mountain, but he wasn’t a student actually when I was there. He was a visitor. He had been a student. He was a likeable man. Ray Johnson himself was — what’s a good word for Ray? Squirrelly, I suppose. He was really very eccentric. I mean, he wanted to make something out of nothing at any given moment which I sort of enjoyed. There was something French about him. Alfred Starr Hamilton. He struck me as curiously surreal and so did Ray Johnson. But I didn’t know him very well personally. We had a couple of projects. We did two books together and I think he did drawings for a book of fables by Russell Edson. But he’s got some terrific stuff. But he didn’t get any attention, that’s for sure.
RO: I wonder if we can talk about your connection to Lorine Niedecker. There are your photographs of Niedecker. I’m certainly interested in the photographs of Bunting and Briggflatts, but those photographs of Niedecker required you to travel out to Fort Atkinson to spend time with Niedecker. You’re one of the few to have done that while she was alive. What was it like visiting her?
JW: Hard to say. Very quote normal unquote, you know. She liked to talk about rebuilding her little cottage and things of that sort. She wasn’t terribly interested in talking about poetry and thinking back to the days with Louis Zukofsky and all that. She was very much a woman of her time and place out there in the Wisconsin countryside. It’s hard to imagine people not being interested in her but most people do manage not to be interested and it continues on. Anyway, she was lucky to have Basil Bunting’s attention like she did. And Louis Zukofsky’s. People like Corman and so on.
RO: With Basil Bunting, with Simon Cutts and other folks like that — Ian Hamilton Finlay — you were also concerned with bringing British poetry to the US. I wonder if this is simply because you were in the north of England…
JW: It must have had something to do with being in the north. Most of those writers were there. Thomas A Clark was somebody I quite liked for a while and still do. Do you know his work? Now there’s some rain out there. That’s what we need. What can poetry do to bring itself up to the needs of the weather? I can hear it out there. It’s coming down. That’s great. Even if it doesn’t rain but five minutes, it’s going to be something. But as I say, I like Tom Clark. He came out of a very basic kind of life. Not too far from Glasgow. Just down the river there. And I don’t think Tom’s family, any of them, were ever interested in anything like — quote — writing or poetry. He had to make all that stuff for himself and he did a good job of it. A very good job I think. And his ideas of what a book looks like, the size of a book and all that stuff, he’s good at that. I only seen him once in the last few years, but he’s… He lived in England quite a few years, and said he couldn’t take it any longer. He went back to Scotland. Not where he came from but on the east coast. I’d love to see him again. His wife is very nice too. She’s an artist. Draws very well. Laurie Clark. She’s done drawings for quite a few of his little books. If you see drawings it’s usually Laurie. She’s very good I believe. Very skillful.
RO: From your early twenties forward you’ve identified a number of interesting artists. And now I’m wondering about your relationship with, say, Guy Davenport. He’s such a wonderful artist and scholar.
JW: I think I’m almost proudest of having dealt with John Furnival. English artist. I think he’s a really wonderful draftsmen. I’m really pleased when we can do another book. He’s wandered off. He gave up on living in England. He couldn’t stand the Brits any longer. He’s moved to the south of France, where he lives like a peasant. A very simple life. It’s not an art colony or anything like that. His wife is a very skilled artist too. She does wonderful knitting and hence I have a great piece of hers that’s a portrait of Samuel Palmer at the age of twenty she did. Her image is great. So I’d love to see her again. Maybe if we can kick my feet into submission.
RO: There that’s wonderful caricature of you batting that Furnival did for David Wilk’s Truck magazine. The JW festschrift issue.
JW: O yeah. That’s cricket. I love baseball, but Furnival is more interested in cricket.
RO: There’s also a photograph of you at a football match and your watching, I believe, Leeds play another team. Is that something you did regularly in England, attend soccer matches?
JW: Yeah. Back in the seventies we tended to go to football. Then it got quite rough in England for a while. There was a lot of fighting. It was rather violent and so people stopped going. Anyway, I’ve gone to quite a lot of cricket as well. It’s a wonderful game. Much more complicated than baseball. I’m not sure ultimately it’s a better game but it’s very very complicated and not many people know what to look for.
RO: Which sport do you find yourself most connected to?
JW: Well I know most about baseball, which I’ve been looking at for quite a while now. I have some reservations about cricket, but baseball, I’ve been looking at that long enough to have a pretty clear sense of what it’s about.
RO: The other day I was reading through Long Taters, your book of quotes. You’re quoting, of course, Flaubert and Bunting, Clement Greenberg and a number of others. But every once in a while these Yogi Berra quotes creep up. The quotes are priceless.
JW: Yeah. If Heraclitus had said such things.
RO: I’m also endlessly curious about your relationship with Mina Loy. Certainly the 1958 publication of Lunar Baedekker & Time-Tables. She phoned into the book launch. You held a book launch in New York. I think Duchamp attended that and others. She doesn’t attend that. She’s in Colorado. So I’m wondering how you first encounter Mina Loy.
JW: O dear. I think James Laughlin told me to my surprise — this is back in the fifties when Mina Loy was alive and living in Aspen, Colorado with her daughter. Well, there were two daughters but she was living mostly with one of them. So somebody told me, well you can’t ignore Mina Loy, can you? And I said, probably not. What do I do next? I drove to Aspen and arranged with her daughter to have lunch with them and so took it from there. We asked if we could do the book and they had a book they wanted doing. So that was that. Then came the second book, which had so many errors we finally got rather embarrassed over the fact that we published it at all.
RO: Thank god we have it. That’s the only book that includes Anglo-Mongrels in its entirety. But that book launch. I read Mina Loy was upset — well, I guess she phoned into the book launch in New York and was upset with you for not hanging her constructions.
JW: I can’t really remember what that had been about. I had nothing to do with making the exhibition. That was made by somebody at the bookshop on Madison Avenue. Books &c. You remember that one? Anyway, the manager or the owner or somebody more or less got out some bookcases and put books in there and that was that. I didn’t have anything to do with ordering the show.
RO: Now I’m thinking about your own poetic practice and whether or not you’ve continued to produce work over the past ten years, say from 2000 forward.
JW: Yeah, I would say so. I don’t find it’s very different. I do what I always do. Sit down and put words on pages and scratch around a little. As I say, there’s no agenda. I never have any agenda. That allows me space to do this and do that and not do this. I’m not very inclined to worry very much about theory and all that. But something goes on in some sense.
RO: Did Olson have you reading theory, historiography when you were at Black Mountain?
JW: No, no. He never did that. He may have for some people, but not for me… I found him extremely agreeable… But there’s a slightly more interesting word than agreeable. But we got on well. Francine Du Plessix and myself were the only students of his that had any kind of university training, ivy league or not. So that kind of set us apart from the others. But, as I say, I liked his attitude and the things he said. I think Francine got very cross with him. I suppose women, there were only a few. And he was very forthright. He was half Swedish and half Irish. As a result he talked a lot and he talked a lot of the blarney, as they say. But I didn’t have a problem and I really miss having him around. He doesn’t go away. He stays with you. I guess it’s been, gosh. 1970. That’s quite a while ago now. He was about sixty. He and Kenneth Patchen were done at about the same time at about the same age.
RO: You mention Du Plessix. She was among the early group that you befriended — along with Joel Oppenheimer and Fielding Dawson — and who you remained connected to for quite a long time.
JW: Francine, of course, she was in that class, summer of 1951, with me and, I think, Joel must’ve been there. Things were really poor. No money or food or anything.
RO: So when you started bringing out the first Jargon publications, you were setting these publications by hand. What’s your relationship to the letterpress? Once you hit North Carolina, the Highlands, you let the Heritage Press do the work, but with the early publications you had your hand in the mix, maybe even setting some of the work?
JW: Well, not I, personally. We would pick somebody to do the setting. Some of those were extremely well done. Heritage Press was great, but it was rather predictable and we had to push them a little bit. They were not used to printing books of this sort and so we had to do a little pushing here and there. But they were wonderful to work with. I really liked those people. They did a lot of our books. Gosh, probably twenty-five or thirty. They did a lot. And they did them well. But we used to have to light the fires a bit every once and a while. They were a little bit predictable.
RO: What do you mean precisely by “light the fires”?
JW: Kick it around, as they say.