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Edition Asheville 2004: A Gallery of Photographs


Fielding Dawson, Charles Olson, 1956,
ink on paper collaged on board

A BUNCOMBE COUNTY REVERIE
 
My parents lived in Hendersonville, but I was born in St. Joseph's Hospital, the year of the Great Depression. Asheville had the only hospital around. My father was soon offered a job in Washington, D.C., happily for me. Asheville in the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s was  moribund, to put it kindly. Very few people there were who realized that brilliant, sophisticated artists and artisans were in their midst. I think about the architect Douglas Ellington and his four wonderful Art Deco buildings in downtown Asheville; the ironwork and architecture of Tony Lord; and the incredible tile vaultings of the architect and builder, Raphael Guastavino, originally from Valencia, in Spain. Later in life he settled into the country outside of Black Mountain-- what a man.
 
Yet I remember in the 1930s, during a family visit to Hendersonville, ending up in the movie palace on Patton Avenue, Asheville. In the sideshow between movies was a lady named Mae West. How this came to pass I have never found out. Mae West was a phenomenon far beyond the Heaven, Hell, and Earth of my righteous Baptist relatives. I made it a life's work to find more people like Mae West. I've done pretty well. (One enticing instance: On Christmas Day, 1951, Marlene Dietrich, prepared dinner for just Francine du Plessis and  modest, rustic me. It was at the home of Francine's step-father, Alexander Liberman (art director of Condé Nast), in the East Sixties of New York City. The host and hostess were out at a party, and so were the other houseguests: Salvador Dali and Francis Poulenc.
 
Marlene took charge: beluga caviar, with Dom Pérignon champagne. Followed by filet de boeuf, in a morel sauce, with a side dish of pommes frites. That was it, except for a lemon sorbet with an ample dollop of  an eau de vie de marc de gewurztraminer poured over it. The Dom Pérignon followed like bleary, fizzy water into the dusk... We thanked the chef and headed off for naps.)
 
That was perhaps the high point of my art-and-high-society period. Earlier that summer I had written down something Charles Olson said to his class at Black Mountain College, way back in Buncombe County: 'I make $26.00 a year from poetry. That's in a good year, I mean.' And I also began to take seriously a line of John Ruskin's: 'An artist should be ready for the best society and keep out of it.'
 
Fifty years or so after my BMC days I still read and write most of the time, except for watching Greg Maddux pitch, somewhat hard since he went from the Braves to the Chicago Cubs. (Today he goes for win #300!) And I must gladly confess to spending every morning for 22 days in July glued to the Tour de France. C'est très cosmique!-- the Greatest Sports Event in the World! Will Lance go for seven?
 
It's not hard to stay busy living in a hermitage like Skywinding Farm. Big view of the Nantahala Mountains to the west, and the Great Smoky Mountains to the north. A great companion in the person of Tom Meyer, remarkable poet and translator; a great orange tabby by the name of H-B Kitty. A family house that's very beautiful. American, Chinese, French, English furniture. Thousands of books... all the Bruckner and Delius and George Lewis and John Lewis one can stand. Why go anywhere? There's a Wal-Mart in Clayton, Georgia; there's a Wal-Mart in Franklin, North Carolina; there'a a Wal-Mart in Sylva, North Carolina-- world without end. 'O brave new world, that hath such people in it.'
 
Asheville has been lucky in being the home of The Captain's Bookshelf for about twenty-five years. Chandler and Miegan Gordon sell new books, good reading copies of classic texts, and great stocks of books on gardening, Southern and local history, poetry and fiction first editions. There are no better bookshops in Seattle or Boston. So, now and then The Captain's Bookshelf will sell one of our Jargon books or a book of my own. Nearby Highlands is a tougher proposition. Ran Shaffner runs a delightful little shop called Cyrano's. He'll order five or ten copies of a new book of mine and three years later he might have sold them. It's not for lack of trying. But Highlands is an odd place. Some Pooh-Bahs and speculators are trying to turn it into another East Hampton, with okra, grits, and champagne on the side.
 
 Go to a dinner party and see if you can get the eight people at your table to avoid the three favorite conversational ploys (the grandchildren, the next cruise, and the latest news from Wall Street) for some literary chat: throw out Saki, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, James Laughlin, and Russell Edson. You will get no takers. Well, back in 1918 the legendary 'Bard of the Congaree,' J. Gordon Coogler, penned a deathless couplet:
 
'Alas, for the South! Her books have grown fewer--
She never was much given to literature.'
 
So what? I know some good writers as well as some good readers. May the rest get a one-way ticket to Tophet.
 
The other day a handmade notecard arrived in the mail. It said:
 
Dear Mr. Williams, 'Please forgive the intrusion of an unsolicited letter from a fan who just moved into the neighborhood. Your out-there poems (refusing to write just about flowers and plants), your pioneering creativity in the world at large (Jargon Press, for example), and your love of the western Blue Ridge has made an indelible mark on the country, one that only you could have made.
 
'I am thrilled to be living in Black Mountain, your backyard and still home of poets and porch-sitters alike. If I can ever be in service to you, please do not hesitate to call. With kind regards.'   (signed)  Sheridan Hill
 
Mr. Hill's words are much appreciated. Writers are sitting in their chairs before computers and typewriters and ink wells, just waiting for a chance to 'indelibly mark' any and all.
 
 
Jonathan Willliams,
Skywinding Farm,
Scaly Mountain,
North Carolina
 
PS: Judge Jim Shipman, my great-uncle from Hendersonville, NC, once said (within my childish hearing, circa 1939): 'I wouldn't vote for a Republican, even if Jesus H. Christ said he was one!'

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