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Portrait of JW at Home by Reuben Cox

TWENTY-SEVEN BATTING-PRACTICE PITCHES
FOR THE JOHN KRUK OF AMERICAN LETTERS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN WILLIAMS
BY LEVERETT T. (“SNEAKY-FAST”) SMITH:
 
1-2: What’s going on right now in your writing, your reading, and in publishing that most interests you? What’s the source of that interest?
 
I love the way Kruk stands in the batter’s box. The bat is held directly over his head, as though the lumber were being handed directly down from Yahweh on High. The poor guy will take a swing at anything. Tobacco juice sprays all over the known world!
 
I have a mind like a blue darter (a kind of Appalachian lizard—I don’t have a lizard book at hand and can’t give you the proper Latin formalities). The point is: if you don’t take a rip, you won’t do diddly. So there’ll be lots of frozen ropes, an occasional long tater, and even the odd tall can of corn. Guys like the Babe and Hammerin’ Harmon Killebrew struck out more than all the others, just to hit the big one. That suits me just fine.
 
Music!—that’s what’s in the head. Federico Mompou, the Catalan miniaturist, is who’s there the most lately. I love the Canciones y Danzas, for instance. They give the poems a “lead.” But more than that I don’t know—and don’t want to know. In the past few months I have written elegies and epitaphs for dead friends (James Leo Herlihy, Yvar Mikhashoff, John Boyd—AIDS in the first two cases, a stroke in the latter). Generally, it’s simply what Robert Duncan suggested to us all quite awhile back: “Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.”
 
Reading? Should we all not just read what we want to? Not to get ahead, or to win a prize, or to keep up with the New Yorker. I’ve been reading Colin Dexter’s latest. And K.C. Constantine’s new one. I’ve driven through Bradford, Pennsylvania several times—that’s where the books are set. He manages some of the best blue-collar prose in modern America and that’s useful to get in your ears. His police chief, Mario Balzic, is a great character. I’ve enjoyed Jimmy Merrill’s decidedly non-blue-collar memoir, A Different Person. I love the writing in Fanfare, where the music maniacs ramble on about the latest recordings of things that can hardly be believed. I never know enough about Sorabji or Ronald Stevenson or John Foulds. Do you? And how much do you know about recent CDs of the Ukrainian Ukulele Octet?—don’t bet there isn’t such a band... I am just starting an austere, un-put-downable book called How We Die, by Dr. Sherwin Nuland. I want to get Artists’ Gardens and Shelby Lee Adams’ book of Appalachian Portraits. I keep wanting to catch up with two books by Margaret Visser, one about the history of food (Much Depends on Dinner) and one about the history of table manners (The Rituals of Dinner) . And I mustn’t forget The Good Beer Guide, which reminds me of such singular tasty English brews as “Old Fart” and “Wobbly Bob.” One wants to know where to find these esoteric delights. One place I do know is The Marble Arch, a lovingly unrestored Victorian pub in the Rochdale Road in Manchester, Lancashire. And here I sit in Macon County, NC with only three bottles of Pilsner Urquell in the fridge. That’s pathetic.
 
I should list my subscriptions: the City-Edition of the New York Times daily and Sundays, in the mail. Costs $420.00 a year and is worth every penny—the very last thing penury will make me give up. I mentioned Fanfare. The New Yorker. It ain’t what it wuz before Downtown Tina Brown, but I have to say that I never could bring myself to subscribe till Tina hit the fan. And Gourmet and Wine Spectator. What else? Folk Art Messenger, that’s about it. When I’m in England, I subscribe to the Independent newspaper, to Gramophone magazine, and to the quarterly Modern Painters. All in all, an excellent elitist list.
 
Publishing? There is never a shortage—always ten books looming ahead in one’s scattered mind, demanding attention. Jargon has never been regional or chauvinistic, but since I don’t have the back muscles and energy that I used to, I don’t drive 40,000 miles a year to try to know everybody everywhere. Thus, North Carolina looms larger than it did. And that means that every time I go in the bathroom I keep thinking I see Jesse Helms’ shadow behind the shower curtain. Well, to hell with such early-flowering paranoia. Jesse couldn’t care less about the outsiders we like. They include the photographers Elizabeth Matheson, Caroline Vaughan, and Roger Manley. The artist Richard Craven. Poets Tom Meyer and Jeffery Beam. These artisans are the focus of much of our attention. I doubt that any of them are sheep-shaggers or multiple-murderers—so much the better if they were, etc. We just like that High Art, etc. I never forget Charles Olson’s primary insistence: “One loves only form!”
 
3. You once said “any poet is a multitude—he gives voice to those who cannot articulate or sing or concentrate.” To whom do your most recent poems give voice?
 
Some come from “Weirdnuz,” which is something Jargon’s Treasurer, Thorns Craven, in Winston-Salem, taps into with his electronic gizmos. Something comes from a novel by Dale Peck called Martin & John, a stunning line or two that I cast like this:
 
                                     crickets ground their legs
                                     together among the closed
                                     petals of the roses
                                     struggling on that side
                                     of the big house
 
Not many novelists give you such an image. Something else comes in a letter from Dan Gerber in the wilds of northern Michigan. Something else comes from a headline in the Irish Times (Dublin). Two epiphanies come from listening closely to conversation by Collin Wilcox-Paxton during a dinner party recently here in Highlands. She uttered, with no self-consciousness:
   
                                    harry’s fine he just
                                    needs a haircut and
                                    a couple of shirts
 
and 
 
                                   you see that beehive
                                   in the hydrangea bush
                                   over there don’t put
                                   your finger in it
 
Another something comes from a letter by one of my favorite correspondents, Ping Ferry, philosopher, in Scarsdale, New York. W.H. Ferry is a very great man. Think of being interested in both peace and poetry (the least plausible things in the world) in your 80s! If my eyes stay open and my ears stay open, very little bores me.
 
4. Your poetry has been called “incorrigibly minor.” Any response?
 
Gee whiz, gosh all hemlock, sufferin’ catfish, leapin’ lizards, etc., etc.—sounds like some flatulent, tenured, heterosexual bore in a third-rate brain factory out near the interstate, but that can’t be right. People like that have never heard of me. I note in the New York Times Magazine that Maya Angelou does 100 talks a year at circa $20,000 an evening. Hey! That would seem to add up to two million smackeroos per annum. How can she be that right and I be so wrong? Last March I read for the Writing Program at Princeton (my first venture on campus since 1949) and I thought the $1500 they paid me for my arcane and oligarchic musings was more than generous. I am appearing at Reynolda House in Winston-Salem next week for free. I am, obviously, an idiot. I should be having serious talks with G. Gordon Liddy. Can you imagine that hissing crowd in the English Department at Duke knowing about me? On the other hand, I have taken the trouble to seek out the little hut that Martin Heidegger worked away in above Totnau in the Black Forest. They, for all the MLA networking, won’t have done that. I have never once been invited to read at places like UNC Greensboro or Davidson or UNC Wilmington or UNC Charlotte or East Carolina; and it must be a generation since UNC Chapel Hill has been in touch. It must be remembered that I’m the gonif who dropped out of Princeton in 1949. That was the crucial decision. Why did I do that? So that I wouldn’t live the rest of my life in the company of Jim Baker and George Bush, and putz around at the country club or the faculty club or the bridge club or the garden club. I was wiser than I knew. Like my mentor, Uncle Gus Flaubert, I am a bourgeois bourgeois-ophobe. Offense is always provided for those who will take same. There is no reason for “nice” people to like me at all.
 
As for “minor” versus “major,” I have always preferred the minute particulars, as someone named Bill once said. But what’s odd is, I play the Bruckner Eighth more often than I do all my Satie CDs. Most people like gilt-edge stuff, so it’s Mozart, Beethoven, world without end, money in the bank, amen! I am quite happy with exploring Eduard Tubin, or Albeniz, or Carl Ruggles. I believe in the modesty suggested by that fantastic insight of Thoreau’s: “Now I am ice, now I sorrel.” You must stay home and well out of sight in order to achieve that.
 
5-6: Some think your poems fundamentally witty; others, that they are visionary. Is anyone correct?
 
It’s hard to know. I just dig in. Like John Kruk, I can only answer off the top of my head. The bottom of my head tends to get muddled and stupidly rational.
 
7. You’ve spoken of poets as “the boys and girls of summer.” What did you mean by that?
 
I guess I meant what I meant. I like “supple,” I like “hot.” The learned professor Guy Davenport proclaims that everything I write is “peripatetic, paratactic, and cathectic.”
How can a poor Macon County rustic like me argue with that? Sounds ok. To paraphrase Herr Wittgenstein: “Never take know for an answer.”
 
8-9: Is the recent turn to critical theory in the academy of any interest? Who (aside from Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams) strikes you as an important theorist?
 
I like Mitch (unlike every baseball fan in Philly), because he pitches like his hair is on fire. That’s “heat” again. The thing is, as the incomparable Ferruccio Busoni wrote on a train between New York and Chicago in 1910: “Artists are there for artists: everything to do with audience, critics, schools and teachers is stupid and dangerous rubbish.” That is the definitive statement. John Kruk couldn’t hit that if it was the last day on this earth. Vidor, the French organist/composer, has suggested: “Soar, as above!”
 
10: Do you feel “comfortable” in Macon County, NC?
 
I feel as comfortable as the average amiable Timber Rattlesnake; i.e., keep cool, stay out of sight, and speak to nobody. This place, with its three houses and 45 acres, is as much of a retreat from Contemporary American Life as we can make it. I recall something you once wrote in a letter: “Every day absolutely terrible things happen in Rocky Mount.” You got it right, babe. However, even Rocky Mount has had its triumphs in time beyond the headquarters of Hardee’s International and Bob Melton’s mediocre barbecue joint down by the Tar River. I am talking about the fact the Jim Thorpe once played minor-league ball there; that Thelonious Sphere Monk was born there and moved as quickly as possible (before the age of two) to the westside of Manhattan; that the fine sculptor Vernon Burwell lived there all his life unbeknownst to almost everybody; that the excellent composer, Ben Johnston, lives there today, almost unbeknownst to everybody.
 
What makes life relatively safe here in the Blue Ridge near Scaly Mountain, NC is the fact that more people in North Carolina make portrait busts of President Ronald Reagan out of petrified bat guano than are interested in my poetry or the activities of the Jargon Society. That’s a number of, approximately, 23 souls. What are the rest interested in? They seem to veer from Emelda to Leona to Lorena to Tonya, with a sizzling pit-stop at NeverLand where they are still hoping to see the three-million-dollar snapshot of the blotchy joint of Wacko-Jacko. I’m much too pagan and not enough Christian-From-Hell to handle all of this. I can’t even remember whether the lousy hamburgers at Wendy’s are square or round. Boobus americanus and the barbarians are way past the gates, my friend. They are already on the third floor, breaking down the attic door. To have a viable civilization, people have to have a benign government, a semblance of education, spare time, imagination, and manners. Point them out, please. Such citizens I will invite to sit on the porch and serve them good bourbon whiskey and the finest branch water from the spring on our mountain. We’ll talk about God and the price of towelling—of ships and shoes and sealing-wax, of cabbages (Scaly Mountain cabbage is the best!) and kings, of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings...
 
11. How would you define a poet’s place in a society like ours?
 
Hey, fesser, I just tried to do that. Are you listening? I don’t think there is a place in American Society for the folks I adhere to. I read a piece about River Phoenix this afternoon in the Village Voice. It was by an astute young man named Hilton Als. He speaks of Americans, “a people of enormous caprice and unwavering puritanism.” He’s on the money. Americans knew that River would come to a bad end—they like it like that. He was too pretty and too sensitive. I just wish I could find a copy of The Complete Full-Frontal Nekkid Photographs of Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr., with an introduction by Robert Mapplethorpe. Now there’s something that’s not pretty at all! Did I just dream this, or is there hope? Anyway, I will say things like: I would rather have a drawing by Bill Traylor than a drawing by Lucian Freud. I would rather have a sculpture by James Harold Jennings than a sculpture by Joan Miro. And the smart money will say, “Boy, you better get your posteriors back to Princeton and learn to get things right!” No way.
 
12. Americans don’t read much. Can you think of a prominent American who might benefit from an immersion in the works of Edward Dahlberg or James Laughlin or Kenneth Patchen or J.V. Cunningham or Ed McClanahan?
 
No, not really. Reading makes hair grow in your palms and makes you blind. Bob Dole is better off not reading, and so are the poor bastards he might turn the pages of, etc.
 
13-14: What’s the Jargon Society up to these days? What will it be doing next?
 
The Jargon Society is up to the ass of a tall alligator in complications and miseries. It’s very difficult to function in Dummyland. I mentioned some of the books we’d like to do back in your first question, but restricted that to Tarheelians. Beyond that: the Collected Later Poems of Joel Oppenheimer. The earlier book sank without trace, courtesy of Dummyland. All we can do is to persist. This time we will add some photographs by Lyle Bonge, not that they will help sell books. I have been wanting to publish The Poems of Mason Jordan Mason for about 30 years. We don’t quite know who Mason Jordan Mason is. Smart money says he’s an Afro-American nom de guerre of Judson Crews, of New Mexico. Some people say he was once in a psycho-ward in India; others say he was last seen working with SWAPO in Namibia. I don’t really know—he’s black, he’s white. Whichever, he is a very interesting poet, over a long time. We have some elegant drawings to add to it by Jorge Fick. And an introduction by Robert Creeley. They are white—je suppose. Who’s counting? Well, somebody’s counting.
 
Douglas Woolf died awhile back and there needs to be a Festschrift for this formidable and touching writer. We will call it Chasing El Lobo.
 
Other people on my mind? Tom Meyer’s poems, always. Jeffery Beam’s poems. An interesting book called Marmalade (Drifts, Gists, Versions, Drafts & Takes From the Poems of Stephane Mallarme), by William Benton, with prints by James McGarrell. The ineluctable Simon Cutts must not be ignored, nor should Thomas A. Clark be ignored. The youngest poet I keep an eye on is Jim Cory, of Philadelphia. Artists? John Furnival, R.B. Kitaj, Glen Eden, Sandra Fisher, and Sigmund Abeles. Photographers? Keith Smith, Raymond Moore.
 
“There is no end to desire.” But, perhaps, there is an end to energy? I will try to go to the well as long as I think there is a drop of water in it.
 
15-17: You’ve said that one of the purposes of small presses such as the Jargon Society is to bring worthy authors to the attention of commercial publishers. This was in 1974. Is it still true nowadays? Have the functions of small presses changed? If so: how?
 
Gimme a break, fesser. Commercial publishing once had possibilities when immigrants like Kurt Woolf and Alfred E. Knopf sat in offices in New York City. Plus one or two homegrown greats like James Laughlin and Ben Raeburn. MTV and Warner Brothers loll there now and expect we must nothing but the worst. Read the “Styles” section of the Times if you can, without throwing up. We are back to zero.
 
18-19: I’d like to see the NCLR print the attached “Case” mainly because it suggests both a close relation between your founding of the Jargon Society and your experience at Black Mountain College, and a distinction between the two. What circumstances produced the “Case”? What is your sense now of the effect your experience at Black Mountain had on the development of Jargon?
 
Alors, mon vieux, I have absolutely no recollection of writing the “Case.” Looking at it, I am pleased to see that it is typed rather nicely and that the grammar is not too bad. It is, after all, a document from four decades past. I can’t even remember who won the World Series that year. Could it be the Giants and Indians, when Willie made the fabulous catch in deep center field off Dale Mitchell? If I’m right, give me century note and hush your mouth!
 
20-21: What’s so important about Black Mountain College? Why was it important to you?
 
Hey, babe, that one needs ten thousand big ones up front. I never talk about BMC for free! If it wasn’t important, I would be some useless asshole running a bed-and-breakfast establishment in the Land of the Sky, playing golf, loving Ollie North, and phoning my broker three times a week. If I may paraphrase Whitman/Ferlinghetti: “I was the man, I was there, I suffered (somewhat).” As they say these days, Black Mountain was about jazz, jism (same word as jazz—did you know?) and the elan vital. It was a Place of the Sacred Boogie. The people were hot! Talking about Black Mountain, for me now, is like talking about teen-age acne.
 
22. Bessie Smith has a song called “Black Mountain Blues,” which turns up in one of your poems. Any connection between it and Black Mountain College?
 
No, not really. But, but, but, etc. If I remember rightly, Black Mountain was a particularly tough part of Memphis. Bessie sang some great lines like:
 
                               “Black Mountain people are mean as they can be...
                               They uses gunpowder just to sweeten their tea”
 
and
 
                               “I’m bound for Black Mountain,
                               Me and my razor and my gun...
                               Gonna cut him if he stands still,
                               And shoot him if he runs!”
 
The College had lots of bad days too. I was glad that I had two years in the Army Medical Corps (1952-54) with the job description “Neuro-Psychiatric Technician,” that helped me to cope with all those fiery egos.
 
23-24: You’ve said, “Music has always been the first thing for me.” Is this still true? What music most satisfies at the moment?
 
True, absolutely true, ever since I saw Fantasia in 1939 at the age of ten. It was just like Dorothy when she landed in Munchkin Land and opened the door of the farmhouse—everything out there was suddenly in technicolor. Who knows, maybe it was just glands? Maybe it was the first shot of testosterone clicking in?
 
But, like all of society, music has been taken over by the Dummies, that latest avatar of the familiar American Know-Nothings. My sleep would not be troubled if the Dummies comprised merely 99% of the populace. But it is worse than that. The body-snatchers and pod people came from outer cosmic infinity and brought all their pathetic, junky sounds with them. Philip Glass has, personally, lowered the IQ of the American Polity by at least 25 points. For instance, I have a very bright young friend, Jay Bonner, who teaches English and writing at the Asheville School. Jay is “very bright”—there is no damn doubt about it—, but he suffers from being 35 in Dummyland. I ask him what he’s listening to and he happily tells me: Liz Phair, Lipstick, Heavenly, Lilliput, Tiger Trap, Pere Ubu, Urge Overkill, PJ Harvey, U2, Digable Planets, Belly, and Mekons... I have actually heard of U2—and REM and the Butthole Surfers before that. The rest come from the Asteroid Klutz, back of the Planet Mongo. Should I be declared certifiable and locked up out at the funny farm because I am still digesting all of Papa Haydn’s trios and as many of Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 harpsichord sonatas as I can get in my head?
 
I’ve been listening to grown-up music since I was ten years old. Greasy Kidstuff never did it for me, though there are guys and groups on the wacko fringe that have always been great fun: Spike Jones, Slim Gaillard, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jew-Boys, Col. Hampton B. Coles (Ret.) and the Late Bronze Age, Mojo Nixon and the Toad Lickers, Southern Culture on the Skids, Randy Newman, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, and the ineffable Eugene Chadborne, who plays electric skull with such virtuosic fire. Ok, great stuff, as far as it goes.
 
But there are realms infinitely beyond Shoney’s breakfast bar and the round and square deathburgers of Dummyland. One’s aesthetic demands become very intense, and very, very particular. Listening constantly for over 50 years will only expose you to a small part of the incredible legacy of music that exists for us. It takes a long time to get to the emotional places suggested by the Adagio of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony; or able to fathom the simplicities of the unique Catalan composer, Federico Mompou, or his neighbor over the Pirineos, the gentle Gabriel Faure, of Foix, in the Ariege. And there is some music that demands much more of one’s ears than that. I remember it taking at least 25 playings of the Schonberg Violin Concerto to place it somewhat firmly in my brain. The demand was immensely rewarding. It is a staggering piece.
 
So, those in the know (as I will insist on saying) will opt for extremely strenuous listening and for as few insults to their intelligence as possible. They will insist on further epiphanies, all manner of new incredulities. I’ll tell you why I have to wish friend Jay Bonner all the best with PJ Harvey, et al., and just say bye bye. It’s because I am swimming in some pretty deep water. A few examples: Morty Feldman’s For Philip Guston, which weighs in at over four hours in performance. Since most of us cannot pay attention to anything for more than 15 seconds, this is amazing stuff to try to come to terms with. It is also now time to come to grips with the extraordinary chamber music and piano music of my dear old friend from Black Mountain days, Stefan Wolpe. There are fine CDs of “Slammin’ Steve” on Koch label and on cpo and on Largo. Beyond that, it may now be time to jump into the deep end and tackle Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum and Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH. And, mirabile dictu, there are arcana beyond even these thorny chestnuts. I.e., can I ever get my head together enough to attempt to hear Alvin Curran’s Songs and Views of the Magnetic Garden? There is a handful of rugged listeners who insist it is “great” stuff. Let’s get serious, let’s get real, etc. This music may be easier for Beavis & Butt-Head to hear than for me.
 
Where does it all end? Having caught up with the wonderful jazz playing of Marcus Roberts and the last couple of CDs by Don Pullen, now people tell me about Butch Thompson in classic New Orleans repertoire and a new man with a lovely name, Cyrus Chestnut. And yet another player named James Booker, stride pianist of yore. I am alerted to an album called “Spider on the Keys,” Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah, on Rounder label, out of Cambridge. Golly! How will I ever have time to find truly glorious performances of the Borodin symphonies, or even the best of Eric Coates and Leroy Anderson? As you can see, there is not much that isn’t grist for my non-dark satanic mill.
 
25. What does a Southerner like yourself see in a Yankee like Charles Ives?
 
That’s a 19th century question, fesser. I can fly to Hartford, Connecticut in less than two hours from Greensboro airport. I can go west from Hartford into the woods and look at something truly astonishing: the architecture of Avon Farms Old School by an extraordinary woman named Theodate Pope, an aunt, I think, of the querulous Philip Johnson. People now move rapidly north, south, east, and west without discomfort. Mr. Ives has never presented any geographical problems. Remember that he wrote his Essays Before a Sonata when he was recuperating from a breakdown at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC.
 
26: What is distinctive about Southerners or North Carolinians? Where is “home” anyway?
 
I can never answer questions like that. I like to think that Tarheelians, occasionally, know what good barbecue tastes like. We brag on our achievements in that realm. Mr. D. Wayne Monk in Lexington, for example, is one great man. But experts like Roger Manley have convinced me that Mrs. Grace Profitt, at the Ridgewood Restaurant in Bluff City, Tennessee, makes it even better—even Zeus would know better than argue with Big Roger... Home, as my charming friend Michael Heny has said, is where, when you get there, they don’t throw you out.
 
27: What is Bill Clinton’s favorite Haydn piano sonata?
 
He is probably the first President since Theodore Roosevelt who has even heard of Franz Joseph Haydn, or could spell his name. (Come to think of it, is it Joseph or Josef?) That’s enough in itself. Bubba One has too much to do without worrying about thatthere High Art. I, myself, feel that way too. I’m just about arted-out. If I live two more days I am in line for Medicare—wow! “Let’s get sick, dudes!”
 
(North Carolina Literary Review)

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