Sunday, August 18, 2013

"A Palpable Elysium" (Jonathan Williams): "Presentable. Absolutely. Always presentable."

"Jonathan, you can't call a book Palpable Elysium in the America of 2002. Nobody knows those two words anymore. You have to call it Heaven in Yo Hand."

(Robert Kelly of Bard College to Jonathan Williams)

Jeffery Beam interviewed Jonathan Williams for RainTaxi in an article that appeared in the issue of Spring, 2003. Like many of Williams' indirect verbal ambles the conversation, as they say, takes the long way round.

In 2002 Mr. Williams had published A Palpable Elysium, his book of photographs featuring artists of all stripes. The book included portraits from an astonishing variety of folk from Williams' social circle: San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, the Georgia folk artist Eddie Owens Martin a.k.a. St. EOM, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Olson, Father Thomas Merton, and a large selection from more than three thousand photographs.

There are also graveside visits to artists Williams admired and whose work Williams wanted to support, among them H.P. Lovecraft, Wallace Stevens, Erik Satie, and James Thurber.

Eddie Owens Martin (St. EOM) by JW

The full RainTazi interview can be read at the Jargon website and is worth a long, leisurely read and a porch sit on a hot August afternoon. Here is a small extract of JW's meandering style where he discusses his time at Black Mountain College, his early career as a publisher, and ultimately why his interests take flight in so many directions. But first a comment about JW's style of dress, which has almost always included a suit and tie since the 1950s:

JB: Somehow the tie and everything else confuses people....

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.

Charles Olson writing the "Maximus Poems"
at Black Mountain, by JW

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.

JW, by Rueben Cox (2001)

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.

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