May 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Devotion to the Strange: Jonathan Williams and the Small Press

For more than fifty years Jonathan Williams published from his home in North Carolina an extraordinary number of poets and writers, many claiming diverse affiliations to the poetic tribes that compose the heart of the New America poetry. The Jargon Society, a now-legendary small publisher, proved what single-mindedness and determination could accomplish in the world of American letters. Williams, sadly, passed away in March at the age of 79, leaving behind an exceptional legacy as publisher, provocateur, poet, essayist, and photographer. In many ways he established a model for how to build a community of writers from the ground up. With James Laughlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, and many others, Williams contributed to the fertile and energetic continuation of North American literature in a period of increasing cultural consolidation by the New York publishing industry. As a model of what a publisher can be, Williams certainly ranks among our greatest.

Through his work with the Jargon Society, Williams introduced many authors to print, including James Broughton, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Olson, and Louis Zukofsky. His appetite for little known writers and photographers revealed him to be a man driven by a curiosity to possess perspectives formed in hidden details, exotic oddities, and introspective visions. His search for the hidden and over-looked spread from his publishing life into other orders of attention as well. Such a need to apprehend phenomenal details and to place them within new orders of attention should be instructive to any DIY publisher today. Instead of looking for strategically fashionable exemplars of the arts, Williams expressed preference for the unknown or forgotten. Not only did he publish the likes of Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, practically unknown in the 1960s when Williams encountered her work, and Alfred Starr Hamilton, a New Jersey poet who lived much of his life in a Montclaire boarding house, he looked at the world with a similar appetite for the disclosure of unknown things. In “The Poetry of Work,” he writes:

On a Pennsylvania dresser in my workroom in Highlands, North Carolina, I have six pots and vases: a Ch’ien Lung mirror-black; a tall Ming celadon; an alchemical form by M. C. Richards; a small, spotted Bernard Leach celadon; a plump, white piece by Toshiko Takaezu; and a polished black piece from the Santa Clara pueblo with eagle-feather design by Camillo Tafoya; on a wall behind them is a portrait of Charles Edward Ives, by W. Eugene Smith. A small quotation from the Shakers is pinned next to it: “No vice is with us the less ridiculous for being in fashion.”

Discussing the publication of a book of graveyard photos by Lucinda Bunnen and Ginny Smith, Williams recalls:

When I first looked through several thousand slides and several hundred prints spread over the refectory table here at Skywinding Farm, I asked: “Lucinda and Ginny, don’t you think Scoring in Heaven is too strange even to be a Jargon Society book?” They thought that was the nicest question anyone had ever asked them. I was, of course, just kidding. I love to visit the Strange like some people love to visit the Country, as I say over and over again. The Jargon Society has, after all, been the publisher of Ernie Mickler’s glorious amalgam of pig-grease and sass, White Trash Cooking. And of Tom Patterson’s monument to the late, bodacious Eddie Owens Martin of Buena Vista, Georgia, St EOM in the Land of Pasaquan. And we have espoused artists and poets as curious, visionary, “ugly,” and far-off-the interstates as Bill Anthony, Glen Baxter, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Lyle Bongé, Doris Ulmann, Alfred Starr Hamilton, Mason Jordan Mason, and Richard Emil Braun. Stephen King says somewhere: “I guess when you turn off the main road, you have to be prepared to see some funny houses.”

Such devotion to “the Strange” gave Williams an impressive ability to punctuate art with intrusions of the unexpected. By listening to what was most delightful, he was compelled to present a complex body of work that gave insight to the American experience in all its wildness of form and attitude. Along with some of the most valuable poetry of the 20th century, Williams published Ernest Mickler’s White Trash Cooking, which became Jargon’s only commercial success. While today some small publishers carefully prepare catalogues as if they were constipated with a sense of their contribution to the world of literature, Williams provided a model of fertile introspection, showing us how to proceed according to the interests and desires of the publisher. Creative motive, for Williams, rested within individual perspectives and capacities for delight, not in some sense of social importance, publishing what others require.

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Williams once claimed that poetry readers could be counted “somewhere between the number of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (several sighted in Cuba recently) and the number of California Condors.” He observed too that “[t]he only poetry readers I have unearthed lately lived near Pippa Passes, Dwarf, and Monkey’s Eyebrow in Kentucky; at Odd, West Virginia; and at Loafers Glory and Erect, North Carolina.”

More recently Williams’s poetry met a larger audience when Copper Canyon published his selected poems, Jubilant Thicket. In it we witness the hilarious and insatiable mind Williams possessed. With the ear of Basil Bunting, a regionalist attention to “the Strange,” and an obvious commitment to poetic lore, Williams crossed the hayseed with the aesthete to retrieve such remarkable moments as this one:

Uncle Tot Harper
could talk
the tits
off a hog

farmed sheep
fifty years
under Crook
under Winder
and’s done
nowt since
but natter

the good man
a gob-stopper
for Christmas

reminds me
Miss Stein said Mr. Pound
was a village explainer

ok if you’re a village;
if not, not

In another selection of his work from 1972 called The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ, a sequence called “History” stands out for its wit and pliability. The “history” in question is Williams’s adolescence, through which he delivers insights ranging from the profound to the naughty on lines that seem almost to float off the page:

History VI:

            about 16 lying on the grass in the sunshine

one            his hand
                                    with all his might

            opened,            exposed            manipulated
                                                   the other’s


                        to this day
            a telescope

                                    excites me

grew up normal men.

And also:

History XXI:

            the organs of generation
                     the caprice of male captors,


                                    over my body,

                                                in my face!

“The face he presented to the world was of an irascible crank, a loose cannon, a gadfly,” said Williams’s life-partner, Thomas Myer, in a recent conversation with the New York Times. “But as a publisher he was extraordinarily generous, always looking for the overlooked.” Likewise, in his poetry, the overlooked occupied his attention. The masturbatory fantasies of youth emerged, giving wonder and joy with sympathetic laughter to experiences that often remain hidden in the backward abysm of memory.


Effing Press publisher, Scott Pierce, works in this tradition of publishing that joins all aspects of life to the work of art. Recently, he spoke to my undergraduate writing class at the University of Texas about the value of making small editions of books, chapbooks, and magazines. Over the years Pierce as assembled a fine workshop, complete with paper cutters, bone folders, trawls and other necessary tools for bookmaking. He possesses a Chandler & Price letterpress machine on which he prints book covers, handbills, and promotional coasters to soak the sweat out of beer bottles. He knows obscure processes of papermaking, soy ink mixtures, and he trades in lead type. Recently he acquired an offset printer that will allow him to produce virtually all of his books in-house, books by authors like Gloria Frym, David Meltzer, Tom Clark, Anne Boyer, Hoa Nguyen, and Tony Tost, among others.

At one point during his talk he stressed the importance of using the small press to build communities of readers, and to foster writers working at various stages of their careers. This focus on community, rather than competition, sustains his attention to publication. This essential determination to work for a community of writers has always appealed to my own sense of how poetry remains vital to diverse readers.

Prizes disrupt the hopeful claims of community. Rather than supporting a body of readers engaged in their own pursuits, competitive models of poetic production often encourage monotone perspectives based on what sells. Writers begin to aspire toward certain models. Do you want to win a Stegner? Write like Robert Pinsky, or H. T. Kirby-Smith, or Joshua Rivkin -- whatever you think will appeal to a committee. It seems like a sterilizing way to go, but that’s the competitive model for many. Learning, however, how to contribute to the material production of the poem might make more sense as a way to enter conversations and to win some sense of legitimacy for efforts taken toward apprehending the dark task of the poem.

We are lucky to be in a period where print technologies are relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire. As such, the small press continues in many ways to produce works on the model Jonathan Williams practiced. In addition to Effing Press, there are many others who bring writing into new communities of readers. Belladonna, Burning Deck, First Intensity, Lost Roads, Punch, Sardines, Tuumba, and Ugly Duckling are just a few that are easily located. Small Press Distribution’s impressive catalogue of small press publications makes it easy also to discover the diversity of extant small publishers. A living art -- chaotic and often inchoate too -- thrives with these presses.