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Drawing by Guy Davenport
"J Doppelgänger Williams tête à tête"


JONATHAN C. WILLIAMS
Interviews
J. CHAMBERLAIN WILLIAMS
JCW: Basic stuff for starters. How long has the Jargon Society been operating? And why the name?

jcw: The first publication was a poem of mine with an absolutely hideous title in the Kenneth Patchen mode: “Garbage Litters the Iron Face of the Sun’s Child.” Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Clawdy! Patchen could (sometimes) get away with such stuff— let his sycophants beware. The engraver, Dave Ruff, whom I had known at Bill Hayter’s Atelier 17 in Greenwich Village, printed one of his copper plates intaglio on this little folded yellow sheet. It was dedicated to Kenneth Rexroth in honor of a fine Chinese meal in North Beach, San Francisco, we all enjoyed. The date was June, 1951.

Why the Jargon Society? The word was suggested by the painter, Paul Ellsworth, with whom I’d become friendly at the Institute of Design in Chicago earlier that year. The irony of the word appealed. And in French it means “a twittering of birds.” It has certainly been that. And, too, a French diminutive, jargonelle, refers to a variety of spring pear. Nice to think about.

JCW: A lot of people think Jargon began at Black Mountain College.

jcw: Not true, as I have just indicated; but it continued at Black Mountain in July 1951. I went there to study photography with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Emerson Woelffer had told me in Colorado Springs, in June, to watch out for his large friend, Charles Olson, at Black Mountain College. Charles had written a very interesting Melville study, Call Me Ishmael, and was quite a guy. I’d never heard of him, but from the moment I spied him having lunch with Ben Shahn in the dining room at the College, he became the energizer, the man who taught me the importance of the writer’s press, a self-initiating process that could let you do what you wanted to in the aesthetic realm. “EACH MAN IS HIS OWN INSTRUMENT!” Olson sang out.

JCW: What was it with Olson? His size? His blarney?

jcw: I don’t “know”, but whatever it was, I found him an enchanting 6’8’’ citizen, a person capable of enkindling others like no one I had ever known. His thinking was a stew-pot of everything: Pound, Dewey, Whitehead. He preached MAKE IT NEW!... DO IT YOURSELF!... BE ROMANTIC, BE PASSIONATE, BE IMAGINATIVE, AND NEVER BE RUSHED! No one had ever told me things like that at docile Princeton.

JCW: Plunging from Princeton University to Black Mountain College must be one of the stranger career moves in American literary life. How did it come about?

jcw: Too long a tale to tell, and I am merely the person living the life—I probably don’t have the clarity to see what “really” happened. My Georgia/North Carolina parents, like all parents from decent working backgrounds and modest educations, wanted me to have better than that. I spent six years at a good prep school (St. Albans at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.) and was particularly lucky in having one amazing teacher (John Claiborne Davis) who knew what kindling to use to fire the imaginations of those few of his charges who had imaginations. What worked for me was: Sibelius, Delius, Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, Sorokin, H. P. Lovecraft, Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Redon, Courbet. By the time I got to Princeton, Blake and Rouault had joined this pantheon. Word and image, how to put them together, how to print and publish—it all began to heat slowly on the back burner. Then I met Patchen, Rexroth, and Miller. I read the anarchist/pacifist literature. And I turned away from the Establishment World of Princeton. Clearly I did not want to become a Byzantinist in the basement of the Morgan Library; or an art critic for the New Yorker. Nor did I want to live in the world of competitive business. A great blow to my baffled, conservative, helpful, Southern parents. (More blows were to follow: becoming a poet, becoming a conscientious objector, having male companions in life. “Oi veh, oi veh, that’s all I need,” sayeth the Despairing Parents. Can you blame them?)

JCW: So, with Olson’s precepts ringing in the air of Buncombe County, North Carolina, you began producing artists’ books.

jcw: Yes. Summer 1951 at Black Mountain found people like Fielding Dawson, Joel Oppenheimer, Francine du Plessix, Dan Rice, Mary Fitton, Joe Fiore, Victor Kalos, Nick Cernovich, Edward Dorn, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and me on the premises. Jargon #2 was a poem of Oppenheimer’s, “The Dancer,” with a drawing by Rauschenberg (the first Rauschenberg used in a publication). It was dedicated to Katherine Litz, who was there that summer teaching. Next, Red/Gray, poems of mine, drawings by Paul Ellsworth; next, The Double-Backed Beast, Victor Kalos’s poems, Dan Rice’s drawings. Then two things happened: I went into the Medical Corps (Army) and off to Stuttgart for eighteen months; and I was left $1500 in the will of a friend from Demorest, Georgia, named Charles Neal. In my mind, I had three choices: (1) buy a Porsche automobile; (2) buy a Max Beckmann portrait; (3) start publishing books. Idiotic from the beginning, I opted for #3 and have been an aristocratic, cranky art-beggar ever since.

JCW: Now came actual books instead of pamphlets and broadsides, right?

jcw: Yes. The Maximus Poems/1-10, by Charles Olson; Fables & Other Little Tales, by Kenneth Patchen; The Immoral Proposition, by Robert Creeley; Four Stoppages, poems by myself. The Olson was marvelously printed by the printshop of Dr. Walter Cantz. I had seen examples of their work for New Directions, especially Sleep in a Nest of Flames, by Charles Henri Ford. The offices were within a ten-minute walk from the Fifth General Hospital I was stationed at in Bad Cannstatt. The Patchen was printed in Karlsruhe/Durlach by Tron Brothers, another excellent firm of craftsmen. I learned a lot in a hurry from these two printers. The Creeley (also Tron Brothers) was designed as a little “Japanese” book for the table, with string binding and drawings in the Sumi manner by the Frenchman, René Laubiès, painter and translator of Ezra Pound. My poems (Ernst Klett, printer) were also done in an oriental style as a four-part folding paper screen for the table, or to be pinned on the wall. The drawings were by Charles Oscar (the husband of Katherine Litz), who was later murdered on a New York rooftop by some lethal hustler. I remember that there were 200 copies of Four Stoppages. It came in a white envelope with my military address imprinted. The price was 50 cents a copy. At a book auction in New York City last spring, James Jaffe, Bookseller, of Haverford, Pennsylvania, paid $1400 for the copy that had belonged to Kenneth Patchen. Since I gave that copy to Patchen in the first place and had to pay the airmail postage to the States, my return on the investment is even less than nothing. Which is not to snarl at dealers and collectors. They play different games in that ball park than I do, but it’s comforting to recognize the existence of new fans. Just yesterday, out of the blue came catalog nine from Origin Books (Steven Clay, Merce Dostale, 821 West 43 Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55409), 473 items by Jargon Society and writers published by us. A complete surprise.

JCW: Is there any “why” you have published what you have?

jcw: For pleasure, surely. I am stubborn, mountaineer Celt with an orphic, priapic, sybaritic streak that must have come to me, along with H. P. Lovecraft, from Outer Cosmic Infinity. Or maybe Flash Gordon brought it from Mongo? Jargon has allowed me to fill my shelves with books I cared for as passionately as I cared for the beloved books of childhood—which I still have: Oz, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, Dr. Doolittle, Ransome, Kipling, et al.

Let me quote some of a statement I wrote for Jargon’s catalog in 1983: “The Jargon Society has been “at it” for thirty-two years. Jonathan Williams is director and Thomas Meyer is his assistant. Despite the fact that we edit at Highlands, North Carolina (winter/spring), and Dentdale, Cumbria (summer/autumn), we are not ruralist or retreatist by nature. We are elitist in the tradition of James Laughlin’s New Directions. We publish the best we know to please ourselves and our friends, and to confound our enemies. Our board includes distinguished Americans: R. Buckminster Fuller, Donald B. Anderson, J. M. Edelstein, and R. Philip Hanes, Jr. Among our friends and advisors are Guy Davenport, Basil Bunting, R. B. Kitaj, Theodore Wilentz, W. H. Ferry, Lou Harrison, and John Russell.

“Publication costs for the Jargon Society are underwritten by foundations, corporations, and individuals who support our effort to publish work by poets, writers, photographers, and artists who have the goods to put on the table when the establishment world seems long out to lunch. For yearly contributions of $100 or more, contributors will receive Jargon Society titles as they are published. For contributions of $1000 or more, contributors will be deemed National Patrons and recognized by name on the colophons of forthcoming publications. Contributors of less than $100 may select one current or forthcoming title as a token of our appreciation.

“The Republic has never been teeming with readers of real books, Readers Digest and Penthouse Forum to the contrary. Our sales indicate we reach about five out of every one million souls! Still, the New York Times Book Review has said: ‘The Jargon Society has come to occupy a special place in our cultural life as patron of the American imagination. But however attractive the books are to look at, and they are justly collector’s items, the chief pleasure they afford is the intellectual shock of recognizing an original voice ignored by sanctioned critical opinion.’ Hugh Kenner has said that Jargon is the ‘Custodian of Snowflakes,’ and that Jonathan Williams is ‘America’s truffle-hound of Poetry.’”

JCW: You seem to have a flawless instinct for spending your time and money on what cannot be “sold.”

jcw: Like the man says, I couldn’t sell ice to an eskimo or shit to a fly. We have taken such an adversary position for so long that we are stuck in some amber-like limbo. A few persons respect this. Most keep silence and ignore the books sedulously. Flaubert once made this comment: “I’m frankly a bourgeois living in seclusion in the country, busy with literature and asking nothing of anyone, not consideration, nor honor, nor esteem. I’d jump into the water to save a good line of poetry or a good sentence of prose from anyone. But, I don’t believe, on that account, that humanity has need of me, any more that I have need of it.” Still, the trick is: getting the printers paid quickly and fully.

JCW: The list is now nearly one of a hundred titles. Some of the most notable would include Robert Duncan’s Letters; Louis Zukofsky’s Some Time; Michael McClure’s Passage (his first book); Ronald Johnson’s A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees (his first book); Paul Metcalf’s Genoa (and five other prose narratives); Bucky Fuller’s Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization; Thomas Meyer’s The Bang Book (his first book); The Appalachian Photographs of Doris Ulmann; Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater; the Art Sinsabaugh/Sherwood Anderson book of Midwestern photographs and chants; Mina Loy’s The Last Lunar Baedeker; and the complete writings of Lorine Niedecker, From This Condensery, in the press at the moment. Many other titles seem marginal and of the Village-Idiot School. How do you justify them?

jcw: I’ve always followed Pound’s old saw: “I now divide poetry into what I can read and what I cannot.” People like Simon Cutts and Thomas A. Clark and Russell Edson and Bob Brown have afforded tremendous pleasure. I am as little interested in coterie as I can possibly be. I do not have lunch with Richard Howard four times a week in Manhattan to hear who’s hot, who the latest bratpacker is, who will win the Bollingen, or be buried alive in the vaults of the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters. Princeton was one club, and Black Mountain was another. I made distance from each as quickly as possible. Most of the people we’ve published despise ninety-five percent of the others we’ve done—that’s probably a very healthy thing. Remember, you’re dealing with a hillbilly oligarch, a crank. Whether it’s poetry or photography or visionary folk-art or persons themselves, I love things that are “bright-eyed, non-uppity, autochthonous, wacko, private, isolate, unconventional, unpaved, non-commercial, non-nice, naive, outside, fantastic, sub-aesthetic, home-style and bushy-tailed.” I am delighted to have published Alfred Starr Hamilton and not Robert Lowell. The gentleman members of the Century Club will take care of Mr. Lowell. Mr. Hamilton’s fate is much more fragile.

JCW: The Southern visionaries seem to occupy more and more of your time.

jcw: True. After thirty-four years I have published most of what I want to in poetry. The Niedecker, finally coming, will be one of our finest books. Beyond that, I still want to do the Selected Poems of Mason Jordan Mason. They have seemed worthy and bizarre and idiosyncratic for all of thirty years. We want to do Drawings of Truth & Beauty by Bill Anthony. Robert Hughes sees what they’re about—can’t 5000 other zany citizens do likewise? We want to do Richard Craven’s Notches Along the Bible-Belt. He’s been at it long enough not to be such a well-kept Tarheel secret. There needs to be a superbly produced, huge book of Art Sinsabaugh’s banquet-camera photographs. And perhaps another book or two by Simon Cutts. I do not keep up properly with the younger generations. Some of them are nice to look at, as Petronius might say, but they seem to have little to offer but youth. The writing seems untalented. Which cannot be entirely true. It is up to young publishers to convince us otherwise. Anyways, now I write books about weirds, and long walks, and still enough poems to keep my hand in. People don’t really like fifty-five-year-old poets any more than they like to drive cars with 55,000 miles. The voice of the bulldozer, not the turtle, is loud upon the land.

JCW: You sound like the aging scold very far from the gadfly-bitten hunkers of the maddening crowd.

jcw: As far as I can get, but that’s not all that far these days. Our place, near Highlands, North Carolina, is halfway between Sky Valley, Eastern America’s most Southern artificial ski-slope, and a new development called Wild River Condominiums. In simpler times, Sky Valley was just Mud Creek; and the water below the townhouses was Middle Creek. (Observe, please, the poetry of top-dollar land-over-use-cum-ruination.)

I live in hiding from the Cornbelt Metaphysicals, the Ally-Oopists, the Language Poets, the Great Unwashed, the Jewish Princes, the Ivy-League Heavies, the International Homosexual Conspiracy, the Heap-Big He-Men, the Hem & Haw Femmes, the Primal-Scream Minorities, and the Tireless Untalented—there are thousands and thousands of these people ready to push you into a tar pit. Like I said before, there are only about 1420 people in these United States who celebrate what we do—and what anybody else does. We are trying to do a decent job for one and all of these folk. From the rest I hide, like any good hyperliterate rattlesnake. And I beg: DON’T TREAD ON ME!

JCW: Does the fact of being “Southern” make any difference?

jcw: I “have no idea” how to answer questions like that. It says on a piece of paper in the courthouse that I was born 8 March 1929 in Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina. That means whatever I, and others, make of it. The South produces Jerry and Jesse and Strom; and Thelonious Sphere Monk and Doc Watson, and Clarence John Laughlin (R.I.P.).

It occurs to me that a blurb I recently wrote (not used) for Duke University Press’s new edition of my Blues & Roots/Rue & Bluets might just give a new reader a fairly clear picture of what J. Williams, Loco Logodaedalist, is really all about. It reads: “Guy Davenport remarks that ‘JW is in himself a kind of polytechnic institute, trained to write poems as spare, functional, and alive as a blade of grass.’ Ba goom, I bloody hope so, sez I in my non-Appalachian voice. Professor D. says a lot about my work that makes sense. He tells us that the poems are peripatetic, cathectic, and paratactic. He’s dead right. But let me put such matters, one hopes, in simpler terms.

“Consider this: four men are hiking the Appalachian Trail. The mycologist is the one who knows to look for oaks and apple trees on a north slope and, hence, for morels. The archaeologist won’t have to stub his toe to spot the arrowhead or the pot shard. The ornithologist will laugh like a pileated woodpecker if he thinks he’s heard Sutton’s Warbler in a place it couldn’t be. The poet (the guy who knows how to put all the right syllables in their proper places) is the one who wants to stop with the local boy who is digging ramps on the side of Big Bald Mountain and hear what kind of talk he has in his head.

“Poets are forever seeing things, whether Angels in trees, or just things written on the sides of buses like ‘Jesus Saves & Satisfies. Are You?’ Poets are forever hearing things—‘always the deathless music!’ I like to catch people speaking ‘poems’ who never heard of the word poet in their lives. It has been my business, along with others (W. C. Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker) to try to raise ‘the common’ to grace; to pay very close attention to the earthy. I no more write for ‘nice’ people that I do for ‘common’ ones. I make poems for the people who want them. ‘He was Southern, and he was a gentleman, but he was not a Southern Gentleman’ which is Allen Tate talking about Edgar-Allen-Poe-White-Trash. I sense a tradition there.

“Blues & Roots/Rue & Bluets is a hoard: the best of what the mountains and I have found out about each other, so far. And a little of the worst as well. The tone ranges from the blade of grass (or hot-shot banjo string) picked by the likes of Mr. Earl Scruggs, to the cello sonorities of Frederick Delius, to occasional glorifications and organ points in the manner of another mountaineer, Uncle Tony Bruckner. For those rare souls who wish to look inside, I counsel: TAKE CHAIRS, DIGEST YOUR DINNER, SIP THE JUG!”

(Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984, edited by Jean W. Ross, Gale Research Company, Detroit, 1985.)

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