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Jonathan Williams, Skywinding Farm, North Carolina (2001)
Photograph by Reuben Cox


A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude

Interview by Jeffery Beam
for Rain Taxi Spring 2003

“We live in a nation of hasn’t, and of those who couldn’t possibly want to know.”
Jonathan Williams, in his introduction to A Palpable Elysium

JB: It is February 16, 2003 at 1:30 PM on a gray Sunday afternoon, Skywinding Farm on Happy Hill, Scaly Mountain, near Highlands, North Carolina. Jonathan Williams and I are sitting in his office. Along with us is Whit Griffin, the Jargon intern, visiting from Bennington College, who is here to join in the conversation if he wants to. I’m Jeffery Beam. We’re interviewing for Rain Taxi magazine. We began some weeks ago, with preliminary questions and answers exchanged by email. We’ll use these as a leaping off point for some new ones. This published interview integrates the two, and a few minor revisions made later.

You are perhaps best known as a publisher of poetry, experimental fiction, photography, and visionary folk art (including the surprise bestseller, White Trash Cooking). But you also have an international reputation as a poet and essayist, letter writer nonpareil, and collector of visionary folk art. Who or what inspired you to become, as Guy Davenport has described you, “ a cultural anthropologist?”

JW: Andre Gide wrote in The Traite du Narcisse that “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” I started collecting Oz books when I was 6. I saw The Wizard of Oz when I was 10. 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 twelve I began drawing and painting at St. Albans School. I already played tennis and soccer. I was incredibly lucky at St. Albans in that I had 3 great teachers: John Davis, Ferdinand Ruge, and Dean Stambaugh. Music, English, and Art were opened up for me on a platter. I was keen (why not?) and very lively. 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 moving tributes and revealing moments in Blackbird Dust is your tribute to John Davis, your teacher at St. Albans, in which you mention Ruge, and Stambaugh. Especially your story of Stambaugh taking your to the Phillips Gallery to stand in front of Redon and Ryder paintings. You burst into merriment and then “sobered up.” You realized that the painters were “celebrating human difference.” Why does it matter that human difference be celebrated?

JW: Well, at the age of twelve, 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 and 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?” It was the one I heard first— 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. That’s what they call the wonder of life... Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting, Moonlit Cove, I felt much closer to. 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 know the two paintings because I’ve seen them myself and I can see how a twelve year old would be able to respond immediately to the Ryder, simply because it’s just right there in front of you - the darkness, the melancholy…

JW: The boat…

JB: There’s some energy that a twelve year old would understand. The Redon is really the opposite - all this light and color and still a mist in a way. Less accessible simply 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, so that now these many years later, you would connect them?

JW: When he saw my laughing distress he told me to hush up. Be polite! (laughter) 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: Take it in. 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 thirty years. He came from Potter County up on the Penn / 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. He was a very well turned out individual. But never loud.

JB: So these early guys taught you your “style”…

JW: It has to be part of it …

JB: 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. 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 - this morning you mentioned that not too long ago someone had said of you that you were “only gay below the waist.”

JW: Below the waist! (laughter) Below the waistcoat!

JB: Somehow the tie and everything else confuses people. (More laughter)

JW: Oh yeah, I’ve had that happen. I went into The Cedar Tavern in the Village one day in 1958 or whenever. 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 book, and I think maybe The Test of Poetry. I was going around to places like Scribner’s and Brentano’s and some of the bookshops on Madison Avenue, and I was tired of carrying this heavy briefcase. For the purpose I had set out to do, I was wearing a brown worsted suit, a beige Oxford cloth shirt, a striped tie, black socks, and brown shoes (well polished). 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?” (laughter) Well, that was all I needed to hear from him (more laughter), 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!” (laughter). 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 did you continue to dress – 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, you know, 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 … 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, particularly, 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: Like a good southern boy.

JW: Yeah. (laughter)

JB: Presentable. (laugher)

JW: Presentable. Absolutely. Always presentable.

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 ‘long 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— I seem to have been quite successful at that. My things are for one or two people at a time. 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 suddenly they dwindled to less 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 doesn’t?

JW: 1951 is the precise year, arriving at Black Mountain that summer to find new 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 Jonathan Greene of Gnomon Press published a similar collection of portraits and paragraphs, and 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 “outside” or “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 ok, the grapevine tells me. I used literary connections to get the book reviewed in Newsweek. The magazine’s subscribers number 3.2 million. The Washington Post Book World’s Christmas issue called Elysium 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 $26.00 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 Highlands 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: “It don’t mean a thing/ if it ain’t got that swing.”

JB: I know you started out in graphic design (Institute of Design in Chicago). What led to the change from purely a graphic designer to 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. 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 and W. C. Fields. As in Mencken’s killer: “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 ... and …

JB: So you just carried your camera around with you all the time or there were days when …

JW: Yeah. Camera bag. 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 on their “costume”, 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.

JB: Right.

JW: 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 [Guy] that took your 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 and I introduced him to 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: This relates too, I think, to something you said this morning. As you say you went to Merton, and then you took Mendes and Davenport, so all of sudden there’s this conversation going. You mentioned this morning during breakfast that Edward Dahlberg once said to you that, “Literature is the way we ripen ourselves by conversation.”

JW: By conversation.

JB: And that seems to me very much present in both Elysium and in Blackbird. That’s one of the wonderful things about the photographs and how you write about them, and the essays about the people and places in Blackbird Dust is that it’s not just you being a documentarian, not just reporting, and not just a journalist, but you’re conversing with those people or those places. One “hears” the conversation in what you’ve written, but one also “hears” it in the photographs, and I think that’s a very hard thing to do. How do you think that happens?

JW: Well, as you know, a lot of my poetry is found and that’s, I think, because I think I’m quite a good listener and I’m willing to lay back and listen, and I think it’s something do with living in the country. I mean, this place, Skywinding Farm, 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, so if you listen carefully then you do find things. I do it all the time. I mean, you know the early book, Blues and Roots, which was done in the course of 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 a little bit, crystallize it, you know. That’s the thing I love about found material, you wake it up, you “make” it into something.

JB: A bit like collage...

JW: And if you don’t, you know …

JB: You haven’t heard it.

JW: Yeah. People can hear it if you put it on the page right, and you get the spaces and silences in.

JB: I think that’s so true of the Ear in Bartram’s Tree poems. It’s the way you’ve put them on the page that 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 and add …

JW: Yeah.

JB: And 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: Yeah. I mean ... 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 another part to that. There’s a great deal of listening that goes on in southern culture.

JW: Well, 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! So this is going back fifty years, but anytime you’d sit with him, he’d just say the most extraordinary things. I’d run home to write’m down as fast as I could so I could get them down pretty well accurate. 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: It’s one of the great evils of television and other media, I think, in that’s it’s flattened out the creativity of natural speech - what comes out, and you’ve done the same things with folks in northwestern England...

JW: Yeah, Yorkshire Dales.

JB: Where you hear a language that hasn’t been obliterated yet by the media?

JW: Yeah that’s it. You know, you’re dealing with people who talk funny as far as the people down in London are concerned. They don’t know ... you know they just ... It’s a class thing. A lot of it is in England. If you don’t sound as though you went to Cambridge and Oxford, you know, it’s demeaning. And all the BBC announcers all talk … 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... 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” straightforward way. And when I asked about that you simply gave me an answer that the camera that you used took square photographs. But that, of course, leads to the question ... Is there something in the square form that is sympathetic to the way you approach creating a portrait of someone whether it’s a photograph or an essay?

JW: Well, that format, the 120, the Rolleiflex 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 the Rollei. SX-70 Polaroid, I think, 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: There are thousands of Polaroid shots, right, of places that you’ve been and people that you’ve known, too? I can imagine a work called Jonathan Williams’s Encyclopedia Elysium. Are there more volumes like Elysium to come?

JW: Lots of Polaroid’s and probably three to four thousand color transparencies. A lot of those can be put to good use if Elysium gets an audience at all, and somebody wants to have me to it again. I’ll do it again! 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: I know that there’s been some work done on trying to catalog and identify a lot of the pictures. But the Polaroids ... has there been some attempt to sort through those and organize and get some understanding of what all’s there?

JW: Not much. 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? I know you’ve done a lot of walking throughout Europe, but also people that you knew?

JW: Quite a few portraits.

JB: Seems to me, that those ... that group of photographs are ones that are the most fragile and could easily be lost if something is not done relatively soon cause I assume their life span is not very long.

JW: Yeah. 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 for that matter. You know, I don’t know anything about this process, but I would think so. Let’s see, some of them, I’m trying to think of ... I self-published a little book, I’m not sure whether you know it or not, it’s called …

WG: Twenty-six Portraits, is that the one?

JW: Yeah. I think it’s on the shelf. It’s got a black spine. The tall ones.

WG: Oh yes, it’s very fragile.

JW: It’s falling apart. You have to open it up.

JB: When did you self-publish this, it’s called?

JW: Well, its title is, let’s see, Twenty-six Enlarged Engorged Polaroids.

JB: And these are all European?

JW: Yeah. I think they are. This is done in 1994 in the north of England.

JB: What is it you look for in a photograph – whether it’s a photograph you are taking or that 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 that when Charles Olson said, “One loves only form” … When you think about that you can argue about that a lot. Some people would not accept anything like that, but 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: It’s really like how you listen to music.

JW: Yeah. I think it is. You try to listen to the music without saying that’s no good.

JB: So that Olson’s use of the word “form” is a broad term, really. It has precision within it, but that it’s taking in a whole world of experience as opposed to …

JW: I think it was Creeley … Creeley 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”, you know, it could be visual, it could be the form of the music, what you see on the page. I mean, you know it – I know it when I see it - that old thing – and I think that’s true. It’s like pornography – I know it when I see it. (laughter) Let’s look at some more!

JB: Has there been some English response to Elysium? Is it being distributed there?

JW: You know I really don’t know. A couple of people have bought it through ... that one of Basil Bunting looks pretty well as you’re thumbing through. (Jeffery thumbs through Twenty-Six)

JB: So these are digitized from Polaroids?

JW: No. These are just straight ... just Polaroids enlarged at, you know, whatever they call it. ... You know you take it to Kinko’s or the like.

JB: A color photocopier. That’s Joel. Is that Joel?

JW: Joel Oppenheimer. That color’s hanging on pretty well.

JB: Simon Cutts …

WG: Why, those are like the Polaroids in the portraits book (Portrait Photographs, Gnomen Press, 1979). Those have hung on very well.

JW: Well, those are actually using the better cameras. Probably the Rolleiflex was how I did most of them.

JB: The portraits in Elysium are often very spare in terms of the backdrop in which they’ve been posed. But clearly there are compositional choices that are 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 … where was that photographed, against the rusted …

JW: Some piece of industrial machinery in the Mission District of San Francisco.

JB: It’s just a remarkable, almost shocking, sort of image, with that great rust red swath, as if some Abstract Expressionist had painted it.

JW: Yes.

JB: And Duncan standing there in front of it.

JW: 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. I can’t think of all the names, but 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, to see, similar kinds of marks as they were making. And after all I studied with Siskind at Black Mountain, and he said a very good thing. He said, “When other people take photographs of a wall, it’s a wall; and when I take pictures of a wall, it’s Siskind.” (laughter) You know he saw himself in that image, which I thought was great, and I think it’s very true.

JB: Well, and that’s what you’ve done, say, with the Duncan. You’ve seen Duncan but you’ve also seen yourself somehow in that.

JW: Well, a lot of people looking at that picture say “Gee, what’s that, who painted that picture?”

JB: Right, yeah.

JB: You mention Clyfford Still in the piece about Jess. I’ve seen a number of versions of the Duncan photograph over the years, but all I’d ever seen was this backdrop, this piece of metal, or whatever it is. It was really wonderful to see this Jess picture which follows 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.

JB: And it was a revelation to see that, to really see the whole piece of object that you have seen, and yet you are quite happy not to know about it.

JW: I knew it. I knew it. It’s just, 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: (leafing through Elysium) Even in the photographs of just objects or places, there’s an abstraction that happens that I think is really nice.

JW: That’s a fantastic image. I mean she’s really something, that woman.

JB: We’re looking at Mrs. Laura Pope’s Museum, in Georgia.

JW: Yeah, down in the depths of South Georgia, near a town called Cairo (pronounced K-row).

JB: There’s is another book of yours which is the book about just visionary folk artists - are any of those photographs yours or are they all Roger Manley’s?

JW: You mean the unpublished book? It’s called Walks to the Paradise Garden.

JB: So, all those photographs are yours?

JW: No, they are either by Roger Manley or Guy Mendes.

JB: But the texts are all yours?

JW: The texts are mine.

JB: Which is another book that should be published. In Paradise Garden one finds the same kind of conversation between you and the visionary artists as in Elysium. Many of these artists are oftentimes 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 eighty-three.

JB: This is all in the southeast, right?

JW: From Virginia to Louisiana, including Tennessee and Kentucky.

JB: Why do you think it is that a publisher hasn’t been smart enough to publish that book? (laughter)

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 anything much about that kind of artless art. It’s not her. You know, she’s a New Yorker, and they don’t know about stuff like this. So I didn’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, you know, because it, after all, was featured in Vogue and magazines like that so it wasn’t hard for her to deal with 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 but that works for me and I don’t know if that’s one thing that has made it more difficult to sell or, I just don’t know …

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, look, look, we’re sitting in a remote corner of the North Carolina mountains, and I make no effort to go to New York very often, but she, 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 was writing a fund-raising letter for The Jargon Society. I’ve been working on that for a few days, and it occurred to me, that the quote book is just sitting. And I’ve shown it to people in New York and the idea these days is that what you want a “niche,” I believe is the unpleasant word. A “niche.”

JB: A market.

WG: Something thematic.

JW: They want it in sections, like all your quotes about wine, all your quotes about sex, all your quotes about sports, all your quotes at England - politics, and on and on and on.

JB: And what they’re not understanding again is that just as in these photographs and your essays that there’s a conversation going on with the way these quotes follow each other without defining them. That’s why I like looking at them.

JW: Well, it’s absolutely chronological. These are the quotes as I found them. It’s like picking flowers on a hillside you know. 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? Except for the reader who is somewhat perceptive to the work, there’s no sense of relation from one quote to the next. People are very put off by not knowing where they are going.

JW: Well, they shouldn’t be. It’s like walking. It’s like walking. I mean one thing leads to another. And I mean it’s great fun and it makes it more interesting, I think, for anybody who reads well is that’s 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, sometimes, inadvertently, or by chance, amazing things happen! You know, between this one and that one. Suddenly something entirely new is made.

JB: Well, it’s the serendipitous and the absurdity of life, which is what keeps us all going.

JW: Sure.

JB: Those surprises. It seems to me that part of it is a distrust from the publishing world of the ability of American readers to be willing to work a little bit and, I think, even within the mainstream that there are lots of readers who would be quite happy to work if they were given a chance, but the publishing world somehow don’t think they are out there.

WG: Bunting said “Never explain - your reader is as smart as you.” So often publishers, especially, 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.

JW: Yeah, good point.

JB: It’s sad.

JW: Like I say it’s much more fun to do a quote book unorganized and precisely the way it came through the mind, like mine is, than the usual stuff. A chocolate box where you can quickly spot the orange cremes.

JB: I agree, you’ve inspired me to do the same thing and I’ve talked to publishers and gotten the same response, “Well, break this thing down into chapters and themes and we might look at it.”

WG: Yeah.

JW: So we may have to publish volume one of it. I don’t want to wait forever. I’d like to see it. The first volume is called If you can kill a snake with it, it ain’t art (laughter), which is a profound statement Lyle Bongé (photographer) came up with one day. Well, that’s volume one. 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: How many thousands of quotes do you think there are now?

JW: Oh god!

JB: Ten thousand?

JW: I don’t know. That sounds possible..

JB: Yeah, it’s another example of Guy Davenport - how he defined you as 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, and you, in a way, collage these shards into an image of literary or cultural thought.

JW: Yeah.

WG: It really speaks to the quote, I think … Hugh Kenner said this. He said Jonathan was “the truffle hound of American poetry, “ but not only poetry but also American letters, or world letters.

JB: A. R. Ammons, another North Carolinian, once said, “A poem is a walk,” and every time I read that I think of you. Jonathan walking through the world and these things accrete to you and then when you are around other people they fall off into their laps!

Testimony to both of these books and the other books we’ve been talking about … you used to travel a lot and meet lots of people, but there was always a time you came home to rest and sort of to absorb. You don’t travel as much as you used to. 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. They are uncomfortable 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 that’s dangerous, the roads like they are now. 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. Well, that’s one thing. 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 had a very good publishing company. He retired about twenty or twenty-five years ago and he came up to the Yorkshire Dales. He has a very handsome house in Marske, in Swalesdale, and 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.” (laughter) “You must not do it. You spend too much time with them, cultivating them and getting to know them, while your poor old old friends are like a deserted garden. You know, they’re not getting water, they’re not getting weeded, and they don’t get the attention they deserve. I mean, you know, 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.

WG: I’m glad you took the opportunity to get to know me. I wouldn’t have fallen into …

JB: Well, you’re just too cute to ignore ... (laughter) Particularly if you were in Chapel Hill, which is where I am, 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. Because really … 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 … (phone begins ringing insistently in the background!)

WG: Even now as Jargon seems to be floundering in the wake of so much culture - mass culture - Jargon still receives so much email and physical mail - it’s just outrageous. There’s no way that even five persons could respond to all the communiqués 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. Email has made it possible for us to relate to so many people at once, whereas in the days of letter writing - and you are one of the great masters - you could write letters to, say, twenty or thirty people regularly …

JW: I write about thirty to forty letters a week, I mean, year in, year out.

JB: So has that changed now? Have most of your letter writers - I know I’m guilty of this myself now - I much more easily send an email than I write letters to you now.

JW: I don’t think I have more than fifteen, maybe, correspondents who do it the old way.

JB: I guess some of it, too, a number of your correspondents have passed away …

JW: Sure.

JB: I know in the last decade you’ve seen a number of really important and wonderful people leave us.

WG: I think the evening, recently, that we found out that Lou Harrison passed away, Jonathan went through Elysium and counted up the number of people that were photographed in that book that were still alive and …

JW: It wasn’t many.

WG: You could count them on two hands.

JW: They’re not many. I think ten might be about it.

JB: I think that might be one of the reasons this book has found an audience which perhaps it wouldn’t have twenty years ago, is that there is an audience out there that knows about these folks but don’t know much, 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, like I say, it started ... the color pictures started in 1954 ... so that’s close to fifty years ago. And I think it’s wonderful to see Robert Duncan looking like that in 1955.

JB: Yeah, it is.

JW: And 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. Anyway, he’s got pictures of people like Sibelius who’s only about like thirty-five - who looks like a completely different person. You know, most pictures of Sibelius, he looks like some granitic old Scandinavian master … and Matisse … he’s got a picture of Matisse that looks like a kid! I think that’s great and I was lucky enough to know a lot of these people, you know …

JB: At that vibrant moment when they are just grabbing hold of what it is they are going to do in their life.

JW: Yes!

JB: You see a lot of that in Elysium and also in the essays. Where you’re writing about Spike Hawkins or whomever - it’s that moment when they sort of burst into someone’s view, your view, or other people’s view …

WG: I know that for younger people, like myself, people 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 … to know that these people are still with us, gives the younger generation such great comfort and hope that we can fill the roles that people like Jonathan have opened up for us. It’s such a great thing.

JB: Just looking at the contents of Blackbird and Elysium, it seems you have known everyone worth knowing and seen just about everything worth seeing on the continent and in the states. It’s about like the “I slept with so and so who slept with so and so who slept with Whitman.”

JW: I slept with Gertrude Stein! (great laughter)

JB: You did! You did! It’s the tributary theory of cultural connection.

WG: There is such a connection. You, Jeffery Beam, published by someone who published Olson …

JB: It’s a shock to me still …

WG: It’s such an honor to be able … that these things have happened and we are the beneficiaries of those who have taken the initiative to look for the real visionaries.

JB: It always makes me aspire to do better and oftentimes makes me think I should give up! I mean, look at Duncan, or Niedecker, or whomever. How do you possibly … Yet this literary … dynasty’s not the right word … these family connections … 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?

WG: Eight days!

JW: Well, when it’s just Tom and me … I like to read … He’s on a very different schedule than I am. He gets up at 4:30 and five and runs through the wilds and …

JB: Goes to bed at ten …

JW: 9:30 or ten …

JB: While you’re still communing with Elgar at one …

JW: Yeah. Listening to something. But anyway, I like to read in the morning if I manage to wake up like at 7:30 or seven. 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. There always seems to be, well all the worse things … Tom puts the latest emails next to the bed and I have a look at those and think back, “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. He knows … I don’t know the machinery at all. All I can do is keyboard a little. I don’t know anything more than that. I’ve only looked at the Internet once, I think. (laughter) Jargon has a site and Tom showed it to me one day and I thought, “Gee, that’s great!” I have a feeling about the Internet, I think it’s, as I say somewhere, I believe the Internet is the younger sister of the Gorgon Medusa! (laughter) If you look more than about twice you’re going to get turned into stone or something much worse, more unpleasant! And I just feel like, my God, I’m not about to be able to do what I’m asked to do as it is, so what am I supposed to go, go down there and look at the Internet for hour after hour after hour? I’d get nothing done.

JB: My theory is that we have evolved it in order to prompt our evolution to Mind without body - to give up physicality completely! Well, we can only hope its keeping other people who shouldn’t be doing things, occupied! (laughter)

JW: So, as I say, I try to clean that up and you know it’s somebody’s manuscript or something I’m trying to write. 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. I don’t know. The whole operation kind of seems monastic in a way. You’re operating like that, you know. Comes 5:30, I stop what I’m doing and go downstairs and get in the hot tub for half an hour, jump out of the hot and come back up here and watch Peter Jennings …

WG: And the News Hour. (laughter)

JW: 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. But …

JB: And baseball…

JW: And baseball. Yeah. 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 great Greg Maddux fan. I love to see him pitch! Other than that we don’t go anywhere much. You know, I’m not going to talk like we’re poor compared to most of the people on earth, but 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.

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: I guess I came here in ’85 or something like that for the first time. It’s one of the richest lives I know. Again, you’re right, you aren’t rich people, but you have a rich life and it’s partly because of what you think and do, and the connections that are there and the beautiful things that are around you some of which …

JW: This is a wonderful house. This is a terrific house …

JB: Your parents helped create. It goes back to the perennial idea - not monetary wealth, but it’s what you appreciate and have in front of you and live with and … everything you live with, you live with in a cherished way.

JW: Well, I think we take care of the parents’s things as well as we can and we don’t disturb them too much. I love taking care of the house and garden. As you know, I’m not much of a hand at that. Tom doesn’t particularly like gardening, which surprises me in a way …

JB: It is surprising…

JW: He doesn’t have too much feeling for it. I have the feeling, but I don’t have the back for it. (laughter) So we have to get slaves like Whit to come help us occasionally.

JB: Well, you have our friend Reuben.

JW: Yes, Reuben Cox!

JB: A young photographer, who is a great gardener and fixer-upper and doer, and a great Jargonaut.

JW: He is. Reuben’s from Highlands and I didn’t know about him or his family, when they were growing up — he and his sisters and brother. I didn’t know them at all. And then he rang up about eight years ago, and said he was Reuben Cox, a photographer living in New York City, freelance, and so on and he said, “I’ve just seen this terrific book that you’ve done and I didn’t realize the press was in Highlands.” We’re talking about the David Spear book, The Neugents. He said, “Can you sell me a copy?” I said, “I think I can. It’s almost out of print, but I’m sure I can sell you one.” So he came down and he became a really lovely friend. He’s absolutely a terrific young man. Reuben comes down from New York pretty much every summer. His parents - his father’s an architect and his mother teaches fifth grade in the local middle school. They have a small place and it’s much more comfortable for him to take over a quarter of house and stay here. He’s terrific about gardening.

JB: One of the new developments in the life of Jonathan and Jargon is that probably a lot of the people that you knew before the last ten years are people that you met through someone else or by going somewhere, but now’s there’s a generation that’s finding your books or writing you or calling you or sending an email, even, and saying, “I want to come see what’s happening here.” So that there’s a continuation with the younger generation which I’ve been really encouraged tosee. People like Whit appear out of whatever tenuous connection there might have been to Jargon.

JW: Art Blakey, the great drummer, his groups were always called the Jazz Messengers, and every year there were new personnel — year after year after year after year) 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!” (laughter)

JB: Oh dear, I’m having my fiftieth this year. I’m in trouble. (laughter)

JW: Yes, that seemed like good advice.

WG: In terms of Jargon, so much attention is paid to the books published with Black Mountain references, people like Olson and Creeley, and to a degree Duncan. It seems like Jargon is overlooked in some academic circles as a publisher of other people, but Jargon has been around so many years … people like Russell Edson, so many have come after the Black Mountain era. Right now you are preparing to publish CAConrad’s Frank. As a publisher, how do you find - how does a manuscript come to you that you really want to publish?

JW: CAConrad 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: Yes, I know him through you.

JW: Well, I can’t recall at the moment, remember exactly how I met Jim, but he might have just written.

JB: I think Cory was one of those who found the books and responded.

JW: He had read some things and at the time he was producing a magazine for hardware people! A national deal. A trade paper - he was doing that for quite a few years. So he traveled all over the place and turned up here one time. I think that’s kinda where that started. He got in touch and so happened that he came here in a car and maybe he brought with him this pamphlet.

JB: Of course, Jim has helped to edit your selected poems, which 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 Galazzi who’s a publisher at Farrar Straus & Giroux and we exchanged emails and 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 he took us to that wonderful restaurant, the Union Square Cafe, 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, you know, “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.” (much laughter)

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 about a month, scratching my head, “context,” now what is that? And I thought and I thought and asked people what it meant and then I had an old friend in New York who is very suave and sophisticated and involved in the arts. I said, “Barney, what the hell is that word?” And he said, “Oh well, that’s a nice word that New Yorkers have come up with so they don’t have to say no!” (more laughter)

JB: So it was just a no.

JW: I suddenly realized, well, that’s it.

JB: As long as you can understand the language.

JW: He’s published ... 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 just sent this script of mine off to Farrar Straus & Giroux and he said, “When the fuckers turn it down, send it to me.” (laughter)

JB: Sam Hamill, perhaps, is our greatest salvation. Of course he started Poets Against the War, too. James Laughlin’s name has come up. 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. Most of the artists you have photographed and written about, except for a few like Laughlin, have avoided the commercial limelight either deliberately or by Fate.

JW: New Directions – they were not in the black until sometime in the ‘50s.

JB: He started in?

JW: He started about 1936.

WG: He started it at Harvard when he was a student.

JB: My memory of it is from when I was high school in the ’60s. New Directions was, it was …

WG: New Directions!

JB: It and Grove Press. If you had any understanding of what was “happening,” those were two of the presses you would look for when you’d go into a bookstore.

JW: Well, you know 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 maybe in the ‘60s. James was the heir to a steel fortune in Pittsburgh – Jones and Laughlin, and that’s that. He had a trust fund. You know, he spent a lot of money on all these guys. Patchen and Rexroth…

JB: But, but, did he have some sense though that he was after commercial success? Whereas with Jargon you’ve clearly never sought it out or perhaps even wanted it.

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.” (laughter)

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 …

JB: It came from the fine state of Georgia, I believe!

JW: I’ll compete on the volleyball court! But the idea – that’s why I left Princeton. I was sick of all those … those rich boys who were going to turn … you know, like James Baker who was one year away from me. I didn’t want to live with those guys.

JB: I never knew your father, but I knew your mother quite well and it seems, certainly, like some of it would have come from them from what I know of either one of them. Although your mother liked to be recognized by society in some sense, I never felt that she wanted to compete to be at the top of society.

JW: No.

JB: And your father, clearly … he came here to the mountains, for instance, to escape in a way …

JW: He was afraid. He retired in 1947 when he was 49 years old and a lot of people in his office were having heart attacks. I think he was kind of scared, you know, and he thought, “I’m going to get out of here, I’m going to the country, and figure out some other way of living.” He did. He put in an apple orchard. He put in very good vegetables and supplied some of the grocers in Highlands. But he was not a country man – he wasn’t a farmer.

WG: I think for the benefit of Rain Taxi readers who don’t know much about Jargon and Jonathan … I think the anecdote about the inheritance – the $1500 that you received from a friend in Georgia. You could either buy a Porsche or …

JW: Or a Max Beckmann!

JB: You were in the Army then.

JW: Yes.

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. (laughter)

JB: I tried to explain it in my history published in the North Carolina Literary Review. You can only talk around it!

JW: I must be very nuts. (laughter) Any American looking at this story would think, “What a wacky guy this is!” (laughter)

JB: What a waste!

JW: Put him in an attic! (laughter) I don’t know. 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. All the kind of paper filling back in those days, and he was successful and he made “some” money. It wasn’t enough really for him to retire at that age, but he did it. And I don’t know where I got this notion. It was something that happened at Princeton. I just decided I didn’t want to pursue money, you know, through my life, and maybe I could somehow … if I became a writer, and then I became maybe a publisher, there’d be some money. But, of course, that’s not been the case.

JB: I remember too the first time I heard the story about – you know all this is happening relatively at the same time – the $1500 inheritance. You could have, you know you could’ve, become an expert on Byzantine art.

JW: Yeah.

JB: And clearly there would have been an income and some notoriety in that choice.

JW: I would have had to stay at Princeton and do graduate work. Well 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, or has that sort of grown as you’ve traveled and met and developed your tastes? (laughter) My suspicion is that you came out of the womb a curmudgeon and that somehow contributed to this impulse to be outside! (laughter)

JW: I’m just a little bit ornery like most hill people!

WG: Jonathan loves people and loves talking. He’s a great advocate of conversation. You go into Highlands and you find so many refugees from Atlanta – Boobus americanus – you can’t hold a conversation! I read Blackbird Dust and thought, “My God, he’s being very very critical,” and then I stayed here and I thought, “My God, these people are horrible!”

JB: If Jonathan was in New York Boobus would be as present as here. It is the most widely spread genus in America! (laughter)

WG: They’re more pervasive than Kudzu.

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: Yeah. Mark Twain – Mencken, W. C. Fields, Mae West – these are people, again, who can use language so wonderfully. Yeah, that’s tall cotton as we say down South, those people. But that’s what I like.

JB: A part of that too is your ability – that from the beginning of your education - what I’m talking about when I say that – I mean when you were hanging out with the caretaker here who was also your education before you went off to St. Albans … was this ability … these lessons in discernment you received and took right to, which seems to me so important to what you do.

JW: You want to hang out with the people who talk best and, you know, sometimes it’s very humble people and when I was down here in the ‘40s and ‘50s it was Uncle Iv Owens across the road that I would like to spend time with. I don’t want to spend time with shopkeepers. You know, they’re just trying to sell you something. They don’t know anything except that. Mencken, he was quite jovial to his friends.

JB: As are you.

JW: He was – you take America – all of it. I mean, who can deal with it?

JB: Well, America is so un-self-critical at this point in our history. Seven or eight years ago the North Carolina Arts Council had a group of people come in and study the small presses in North Carolina, and Peter Davison said that any “sensible society” would set aside a fund for you to use however you wanted to. Since then the Arts Council has perhaps been a bit more generous than it has been at other times.

JW: Yes, they’ve put a little money in it.

JB: But still, no one has come forward to set aside this fund because the sensible society doesn’t exist. 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. I mean that’s … when you get older you really don’t have quite as much energy. Now, that I like to stay home. 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: Tell me a little bit about the third book of essays and if there are 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. (laughter)

WG: Most of the pieces have never been seen in America. A lot have been published in England.

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. (laughter)

JB: I thought there would be a bird in the title.

JW: It should have been … but … 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? Your "Moon Pool" in Blackbird does a little of that. It would be interesting to see what would happen.

JW: I read well, but I haven’t read as widely as I might have. I read what I enjoy reading.

JB: Which happens when you are self-taught.

JW: There are huge gaps in my knowledge of English literature. I really don’t know … I know a few poets down through English lit. There’s so much I haven’t read. 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 think, 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 – in essence that same sort of esprit that you had in those books.

JW: 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 – I trust a long time hence, since you are as mean as a cottonmouth and drink a little too much, so that you’re going to live a long time – I’ll help sprinkle your ashes over this Highland earth … if you don’t do it to me first …

JW: You can never tell!

JB: 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.” (laughter)

JB: Despite all these serious questions about artistic origins, and aesthetics, and “knowing”, the emotion I most think of when I think of times spent with you, or reading your work, and looking at your photos, is joy. Childlike, innocent, wild-eyed fun. I thought of this before I came here this weekend, but during breakfast you said, “You know, we’re just having fun!.”

JW: Well, who was it? Several writers and composers have said … Mompou said he never learned anything after he was about ten or eleven, 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 again, that of course excludes the sexual element mainly. 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. But, you know you have to be. I fooled with boys in prep school, but in a very simplistic way. I never really got involved with anybody emotionally, satisfactorily, or deep feeling until I was twenty.

JB: This idea of fun …

JW: Sexual pleasure and fun is another dimension that you add on to it, but it’s the joy of childhood I think really. Do you know the piece of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, the piano piece?

JB: No.

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 piece, and it’s absolutely sublime. It’s like the world should be. Like somebody said on television Americans need to be nicer people. I think we all better think about that a little bit. I hope people think about it. 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.”

This interview appears here unabridged as a very lightly edited transcription.

It appeared in an edited and abridged version in Rain Taxi online edition
Spring 2003, as Tales of a Jargonaut: An Interview with Jonathan Williams.

And in an even more abridged version in Rain Taxi print edition Spring 2003, vol. 8 no. 1: 46-48 as Tales of a Jargonaut :An Interview with Jonathan Williams.

February 4, 2003 (first questions – via email)
February 9, 2003 (first answers –via email)
February 16,2003 (interview)
February 19 – 24, (transciption, lightly edited)
February 26, 2003 (minor revisions by Jonathan Williams)

Jeffery Beam is the author of ten works of poetry including The Fountain (NC Wesleyan College Press), Visions of Dame Kind (The Jargon Society), the award-winning An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold (Horse & Buggy Press), and the recently released spoken word enhanced 2 CD set What We Have Lost: New & Selected Poems 1977 – 2001, one of five finalists for an Audio Publishers Association Audie Award in Poetry. Some of his poems from “The Life of the Bee” poem sequence were recently set to music by Lee Hoiby and performed at Carnegie Hall. His The Beautiful Tendons: Uncollected Queer Poems 1977 – 2001 is due in 2004 from Off the Cuff Books. Beam is a botanical librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Poetry Editor of the print and online literary journal, Oyster Boy Review (


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