Category Archives: Poetry

Atlanta Queer Lit Fest – Readers


More exciting news from Atlanta where the organizers of the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival (link) have released the initial list of readers for the festival.

MarkdotyI’m delighted to see a number of White Crane connected poets on the bill including Mark Doty (who is judging our James White Poetry Prize in its inaugural year) and EdmaddenEd Madden whose work we’ve published in the magazine and whose new book Signals is just out from University of South Carolina Press (it’s a fantastic book).  I’ve heard from a few other poets who’ve been invited to read and the ATLQLF site mentions that more will be announced so I’ll wait to note them till they’re officially listed.

Yours truly appears at the bottom of the list and let’s just say I’m over the moon to be in such cherished company.

The dates for the fest are Oct. 15 -19 at various locations to be announced around the city. 

Sounds like a festival to add to your Fall calendar!

More info at

Atlanta Queer Lit Fest


Some wonderful news coming out of Atlanta.  The Atlanta Queer Literary Festival (AQLF for short) is building up to being a great event this year.

I spoke with great Atlanta poet and organizer Collin Kelley, who’s on the planning committee for the festival, and they’ve really gone all out to expand their second annual literary festival.  He spoke of the desire to have another venue for Queer writers.   


The festival will feature Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning authors, poets, playwrights and more. There will be readings, poetry slams, workshops, signings, theatre events and much more.  They’ve asked me to come read and I’m deeply honored to be a part of this auspicious undertaking. 

There are a number of poets I’ve heard from who are planning on attending and reading.

The planning group will be announcing the list of invited readers next week.  Should be an interesting list.

The dates for the fest are Oct. 15 -19 at various locations to be announced around the city.

Sounds like a festival to add to your Fall calendar!

More info at

Kay Ryan the new poet laureate

KayryanThis week the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, announced the selection of Kay Ryan as the next poet laureate of the United States.

Some background about the position.  First created in 1937 as the "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," the position did not officially take on the title of "United States Poet Laureate" until 1986 when, by an act of Congress, the position received the title it deserved. A few articles about Ryan have called her the "16th poet laureate" but this is for all practical purposes a ridiculous supposition as the position didn’t change, just the title.  Secondly, the position is not  chosen by the president.  The president has nothing to do with the selection of this laureate.  The title, you’ll recall is the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress of Congress.   I feel the need to underline and bold this fact because this myth has been repeated by everyone from The West Wing tv show to a recent idiotic rant in the National Review.

In seven decades the position has been held by poets you’ve probably heard of (Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey and Billy Collins) and poets, depending on your poetic reach, you’ve never heard of (Joseph Auslander, Josephine Jacobsen, Robert Hayden anyone?).  I happen to co-curate a reading series here in DC that on two occasions has held readings featuring the work of past poet laureates.  We call the readings "Lorettapalooza" as a nod to the popular Lollapalooza music festival and a "lightening up" of most people’s conception of poetry and the work of a "laureate."  Dipping into the work of the best poets of over seventy years of American poetry has been a singular pleasure and in its two iterations has made for wonderful evenings of spoken poetry.

The range of poets has been pretty amazing and as I’ve gotten to know the work of the more obscure and forgotten poets it’s been a valuable addition to my own appreciation for the depth of American poetics.  The diversity of laureates has also been rather remarkable.  The position has been held by over 42 poets in 48 terms.  This is because the position has changed names over time and some poets were called to serve under both titles.  The fourth poet appointed, Louise Bogan, was a woman, cracking the gender barrier much sooner than in other positions.  The position has not been very racially or ethnically diverse.  Robert Hayden was the first African-American appointed in 1976. There have never been Asian American, American Indian or Latino poet appointed.  I could make a few suggestions to this end if they’d be open to suggestions.  They should work on that soon.  There have been numerous foreign-born poets starting with Stephen Spender and most recently Charles Simic last year.

LocoldpostcardThe position has been celebrated as the "catbird seat" of American poetry while others have complained about the position’s vagueness.  Elizabeth Bishop hated her time as consultant while Robert Lowell described the position as "neither a librarian nor a Washington official, but something odd, one of the Government’s oversights."  Indeed the role of the poet laureate has always been a bit vague and has changed over the years.  Originally the position was seen as a real consultantship and the poet actually moved to DC to spend a year (or two years if their appointment was repeated) working at the Library of Congress in a pretty palatial office overlooking the Capitol building.  Consultants were expected to oversee the Library’s vast holdings in poetry, to hold readings and to answer any questions about poetry.  A congressman wanting to find just the right line from Cicero for his diatribe from the senate floor could call up the office and get some suggestions.  Archibald MacLeish, the only poet to hold the position of Librarian of Congress, redesigned the position as a one year position to recognize an excellent poet and provide them with a year free of most constraints in which they could do research on future work. James Dickey gave the position it’s very public face and initiated the practice of inviting multiple poets to read at the library (a common practice today).  Sadly poet laureates don’t move to DC anymore.  Most hold academic teaching positions and only come to Washington to give their own readings (which launches the season) and also regularly travels to the capitol to introduce their selected poets.  In those public readings I have had the pleasure of hearing some wonderful poets — Galway Kinnell, and Charles Simic and Donald Hall (the last two poet laureates).  In Washington, people wait to hear who has been selected as laureate and then wait to hear who the laureate will invite to come read.  These free readings by these great poets are among the special delights of living in the nation’s capitol.

Now enters Kay Ryan to the position.  I first became acquainted with Ryan’s work through my friend Michael Gushue who sang her praises long ago.  I had a chance to hear her last year at the Folger Library and consider it one of the best public readings by a poet I’ve ever attended.  The poetry itself was quite remarkable and good.  But I was most struck by her attention and care to her audience and to the real appreciation and understanding of the dynamics of public reading.  I recall her stopping after reading one of her poems and saying, "I think I’ll read that again.  Would that be alright?"  This theater filled with hundreds nodded or murmured its enthusiastic assent and Ryan read the poem again.  It was a small thing but it struck me that I had never experienced this before.  You know, there are times when one needs to hear a poem read aloud twice to get it.  To hear the mechanics and the chimes within the lines.  Her poems are short wonders and you want to hear them again to really appreciate their beauty.  Her work has been compared to Emily Dickinson’s work.  I can see that.  There’s a sparing use of language in Ryan’s work that is Dickinsonian.  But there’s an internal use of hidden rhyme that I’m struck by in Ryan’s work.  It’s the sort of poetry that you read and enjoy and then want to read aloud.  You want to hear the words come out of your mouth, hang in air and then have the rhymes strike each other.  As someone who writes in a free verse form and, truth be told, gets a bit tired from all the yacking of formalist bullies, I take a great delight in Ryan’s work.  It’s innovative and not hackneyed (in ways that most formalist poetry pushers work suffers to my ears).

The Washington Post and New York Times‘ stories about Ryan’s selection both talk about Ryan’s long path to notice and success.  She seems rather down to earth about the whole thing.  She has written in the past with pretty curt dismissal about the professional poetry and writing workshop world.  She bears her own bootstraps autodidactic role as a badge of pride and that’s to be applauded in a time of uber-professionalism.  But this would all be beside the point if the craft wasn’t so good.  I’m very curious to see who Ryan invites to come read.  I look forward to those readings.  They offer an insight into the laureate’s tastes.  I also look forward to hearing this poet read her own work in the Library’s Madison building.  It’d be wonderful if Ryan considered spending more time in the capitol.  I think she would find a city with a vibrant poetic community willing to engage and support innovative work.  I assume it’s largely up to her.  But she seems to be enough of a firebrand to make it happen if she’d like it.  I should also add that I’m proud to have another GLBT poet be appointed to the position.***  While the New York Times mentioned Ryan’s partner Carol Adair in the article, the Washington Post is to be applauded for writing of Adair’s huge influence in Ryan’s rise in poetry and also for mentioning their recent marriage after being together 30 plus years after the recent California marriage ruling.

Kay Ryan’s poetry:
The Niagara River – 2006
Say Uncle: Poems – 2000
Elephant Rocks: Poems – 1997

***Elizabeth Bishop held the position in 1949  (although her same sex relationships were not known at the time and would be verified after her death), Stephen Spender held the position (although his biography and his back and forth is such a mess he’s probably not worth counting).  William Meredith held the position in the late 1970s (his longtime partner, the poet Richard Harteis, has written movingly about their relationship).

WC77 – Review of Edward Field’s After The Fall

Rvu_field_2 After The Fall: Poems Old and New
By Edward Field
University of Pittsburgh Press, 160 pages.
ISBN-10: 0822959801
Reviewed by Dan Vera

The appearance of new poems by Edward Field is always a cause for celebration. The master poet begins his most recent collection, After the Fall: Poems Old & New with a series of poems that serve as gutsy ars poetica on the engagement of the poet with the world. Under the title “What Poetry Is For” Field surveys the landscape of the wartime Bush years. Some of the poetry is time-sensitive and will soon (hopefully) read to the future as a time capsule of our era. In “Letter on the Brink of War” Field bears witness to what the unjaundiced eye sees at the beginning of a disaster he has lived through before:

They even talk of shock and awe–
another term for blitzkrieg’s sturm and drang–
and instead of Jews, the roundup of Muslims,
But you have to ask, Who’s next?

“Homeland Security” extends the theme by offering an analysis of the police state tactics faced by those who raise suspicion. Field has a way of writing that delivers a punch with the deftest of comic timing. It leaves you smiling and wincing at the same time.

What I have always loved about Field’s writing is its utter lack of pretense and its firm conviction in telling the truth.  Beauty is not the word here.  Breathtaking is.  You read a marital poem like “Oedipus Schmoedipus” or the searing indictment of Jews complicit in the current administration’s wrong-doing "But what are Jews doing in this government? / Wasn’t civil liberties always a Jewish passion?" and you understand why Plato wanted poets banned from his Republic for their insistence on telling the truth.  There is also humor. Lots of it —whether writing on aging in “Prospero, in Retirement,”  or his apologia to his lover who must live with “the poet” in “Mrs. Wallace Stevens,” Field always delivers.  Take “In Praise of My Prostate” in with Field celebrates his body’s resiliencies:

and you still expand, your amazing flowers
bursting forth throughout my body,
pistils and stamens dancing.

When you’re dealing with a great poet, the beauty of a volume of selected works like this—especially for the uninitiated—is its ability to offer up new work that captures your affections, and also present the earlier work that serves as confirmation that this genius has roots and, even better, offer a past catalogue of volumes to seek out. Here in one gem of a book are the poems I have loved for many years.  Field’s “The Life of Joan Crawford” from his 1967 volume Variety Photoplays, “From Poland,” and “Mae West” are here too.

As he did in his memoirs published three years ago, Field continues his clear-eye seeing and saying of the world. I believe he writes with the clear understanding that there is a beauty to be found in honesty.  With After the Fall Field somehow gives courageous permission to be more honest in our lives.  As if saying life is more fun and more compelling by facing the truth of oneself.  In all its beauty. I truly believe it.

This is just an excerpt from this issue of White Crane.   We are a reader-supported journaland need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going.  So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!

Dan Vera is managing editor of White Crane.   He lives in Washington, DC where he writes poetry, organizes readings and publishers books of poetry.  Visit him at

LGBT Writers of Washington Tour

20080621_1525 So today was my second try at leading an GLBT Walking tour of Literary Washington.   This time the tour was under the auspices of Beltway Poetry  Quarterly and Split This Rock Poetry Festival (the original sponsor of the tour with financial help from White Crane Institute).  Inspired by walking tours I’d taken with my friend Kim Roberts, I’d originally developed it for the Split This Rock festival in March.  Sadly only two people showed up for that first offering.  I think long distance from the festival site on U Street and the early morning hour after long till-2am poetry open mics spelled doom for that tour’s turnout.  The two hearty folks that showed up (not counting my darling fere Pete) were great, but I was hoping for more folks.  Kim, innately understanding all that went into designing a tour like this, (all the hours spent doing research through biographies, interviewing still living folks from those eras, and searching through old city directories etc) — wisely suggested holding it again in June and offered to sponsor it through Beltway.  Split This Rock offered to co-host again and they jointly put the word out through their wondrous communications channels and VOILA! we had over fifteen folks show up to do the reading.  Oh, and we had a really wonderful write up in the Washington Blade, courtesy of their arts writer Amy Cavanaugh.  Anyway, I was psyched when I saw the very engaged and very diverse crowd of folks who showed up.  And poets!!

20080621_1521 [at right, Philip Clarke, Tonetta Landis, Craig Harris and I in front of the Whitman public art project at the Dupont Circle metro stop] The tour itself ambles around Dupont Circle beginning with the circle itself, talking about proto-Gay poets in Washington, DC (Walt Whitman, Natalie Barney) then talked about the queer poets of the Harlem DC Renaissance: Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, Angelina Weld Grimke etc.  We spent some time talking about the various Radical Writers collectives in DC in the 1970s including the BreadBox collective, the Lesbian Feminist "Furies Collective" (which included and published the work of Rita Mae Brown, Charlotte Bunch, Pat Parker, Willyce Kim, photographer Linda Koolish, June Slavin, Judy Grahn, Lee Lally, and others), the Skyline Faggot Collective, and the GLF collective.  I also mentioned the newspapers that began in the early 70s and were vital to publishing much of this new poetry: the Gay Blade ( forerunner to the Washington Blade), Off Our Backs, Furies, Motive magazine and BreadBox.

20080621_1527It was great to spend some time speaking of those literary collectives that really broke ground in the 1970s.  The Furies published some groundbreaking work through their newspaper as did the Skyline Faggot Collective that worked on the last issue of the United Methodist-funded Motive issues.  I had a chance to read some poems by a contributor to that historic publication, Perry Brass (who lives in New York now and who will be coming to DC for a reading in the Fall).  I also spent some time talking about the Mass Transit reading series of the 1970s that were held at the countercultural Community Bookshop on P Street and featured ground breaking poets (both Gay and Straight) including Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos, Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Beth Joselow, Terence Winch, Tina Darragh, E. Ethelbert Miller, Liam Rector, and Hugh Walthall (who WAS ON THE TOUR!!). Many of these writers are associated with New York City when in actual fact they were from and began their work in Washington.  We also covered what I’m calling the Second Black Gay Renaissance of the 1980s and early 90s (the "first" meaning the aforementioned Harlem DC Renaissance writers).  The poets of this second era included Essex Hemphill, Craig Harris, Larry Duckette, Wayson Jones, Tania Abdulahad, Gideon Ferebee, Papaya Mann, Michelle Parkerson, Garth Tate and others.  We stopped at a location of one of Essex Hemphill’s readings and listened to archival audio of Hemphill reading his "Black Beans" poem.

20080621_1526[At right: This bus just called out for photographic documentation] Along the way we stopped to see some of these writers’ homes and hear some of their poems recited.  And as in Hemphill’s case, on a few occasions we listened to archival audio recordings of the poets reading their own work. I ended the tour where we began, in Dupont Circle, hearing a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his poetry at the very first Gay March on Washington in 1979.  He read "The Weight" and a beautiful little gem of a poem on Gay rights that I have never seen in print in any of his published books.  A perfect ending to a very nice walking tour. 

20080621_1523The response was very positive and encouraging to me to say the least.  The folks on the tour were so engaged and many shared additional information that enriched the experience (a few were present at some of the events and added information that’s invaluable).  Kim said she enjoyed it, and as I consider her an expert on these tours) that meant the world to me.

[at left, Joseph Ross, me, Kim Roberts, L. Lamar Wilson, and Craig Harris in front of the site of the old Gay Community Building on 21st Street] A few people weren’t able to do the tour and sent their regrets with the hope to do it "next year."  When I heard that at the beginning of the tour I figured it was hopeful thinking, but now, I think it might be worth considering.

Hugh Walthall was nice enough to give me a copy of his book ladidah and Beth Joselow’s The April Wars which he published in 1983. Treasures!  All in all a very satisfying afternoon.

The LAmmys

Broughton_all_cover I loved every minute of the Lammy’s evening of awards. Congratulations to the Lammys, which have moved to Los Angeles (along with Charles Flowers, the real loss for New York). Twenty years is no small accomplishment. May you continue forever.

Alas, White Crane’s ALL: A James Broughton Reader was, inexplicably, not a finalist for the LGBT Arts and Culture category. I have to admit…all sour grapes aside…I don’t understand how this important collection of one of the leading voices of queer writing and film could be so blatantly ignored. Winning would have been gravy. But it should have been a finalist. There…I got that off my chest.

Friend, Kitt Cherry, was nominated for her boook Art That Dares was one of five books chosen in the LGBT Arts and Culture category. Unfortunately it didn’t win, but congratulations Kitt. You do wonderful work and we’re proud to feature your work in White Crane. [2008 Lammy winners]

It was a wonderful evening. It was a delight to be in an auditorium with all the hardworking GLBT authors. I think the Lambda Literary Foundation needs to rethink the process and break down and let the winners know they’ve won. Too many of them opted not to fly cross country (when flying is nothing short of a penance!) only to find out that they hadn’t won. Personally I think we owe it to our own institutions to support them, whether we’re winners or not (or…ahem…finalists!) But practical is practical and if the Lammys really want to be the important award they are, it sort of undercuts that end when the winners aren’t present to receive their beautiful crystal book award. And there’s far too much attention to the big publishers…[and they wonder why Gay publishers are folding left and right?]

I’m not quite sure what our sisters made of all the “penis humor” which was…shall we say…somewhat flaccid? But equal time for bad Lesbian humor was well-represented by a Lesbian comic troupe called "The Gay Mafia" performed a Lesbian science fiction scene that was, at best, sort of obligatory. And why is it that Lesbians get to make penis jokes and if Gay men said anything about women’s genitalia we would lose ours? Let it be duly noted: Lesbians can be as embarrassingly bad as Gay men.

For the most part, this is a graying (if eminent) crowd. Youth was represented, but there was, overall, a nice balance of age. The President of the LLF has been handed off (in another series of penis allusions with a "baton") from the eminent and splendid Terry Decrescenzo to best-selling author (and son of newly-minted Christian, Anne Rice) Christopher Rice in a clear play for the Los Angeles celebrity and youth crowd. I get it. Lambda needs to do this. The whole publishing world needs to get connected with the short-attention span crowd. At least he’s out-Gay. For the Los Angeles Gay scene, this is not always a given (see "Hilton, Paris/Gay Pride 2005").

There was a moving (if somewhat overlong) "In Memoriam" slide show, that had all the authors who had died in the past 20 years — 1988 to 2008, since it was the 20th anniversary of the Lammys. Tears and fond sighs were the order of the day as all our literary heroines’ and heroes’ faces looked out at us from the silver screen. Even Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who wrote "Scum Manifesto" and who shot Andy Warhol, was up there. The obligatory applause response sort of faded away long before the slide show was over. Maybe some of the authors in the slide show were not well-known to everyone in the audience. But my suspicion was more along the lines that the reaction was “Why are we doing this?” Is it really necessary to parade this dirge-like presentation? I’m all for acknowledgment of our elders and our ancestors, to be sure…but it seems to me it might have been a little more celebratory in tone as opposed to the somber tone it took.

Ann_bannon Mystery pioneer Katherine V. Forrest presented a Pioneer award to Ann Bannon, Beebo who wrote the  Lesbian Beebo Brinker novels in the 1950s, which has recently been staged by our friend Linda Chapman (The Beebo Brinker Chronicles), and whom every Lesbian of a certain age has read and revered. Her character Beebo Brinker is nothing short of legend. Forrest attested, as she struggled not to cry, she that Ann Bannon’s books had saved her life. This is what all this publishing is all about. And we must never forget that. Every day, somewhere, there is some Gay kid looking to find some reflection of himself or herself in the world. Like most people, the only place I ever found it was in the dictionary. Ann Bannon is a lovely woman, whose warm smile lit up the room. Her books saved lives. I had the pleasure of meeting her in New York when The Beebo Brinker Chronicles opened and she couldn’t have been more delightful then, and more deserving of this acknowledgment now. Congratulations to Ms. Bannon.

Malcolm_and_kitt Finally, the other Pioneer awards went to our dear friends Malcolm Boyd, who is Mark going to be 85 years young this very weekend, and his lion-hearted partner, Mark Thompson, both White Crane authors and contributors. They’re both grand old gay men of letters. White Crane has published the essential Malcolm Boyd reader in recognition of his 85th year, A Prophet in His Own Land: A Malcolm Boyd Reader.

In all…a lovely event. On a personal note, Mark and Malcolm hosted me in their beautiful home for a very smart (in every sense of the word!) cocktail party with the literati of Los Angeles in attendance. I must admit it was a real honor to have such an illustrious and accomplished crowd assembled…to say nothing of it being in my honor (and Malcolm’s, too). To return to the City of Angels after 25 years and receive such a welcome was gratifying, humbling and sweet. Thank you M & M!

Split This Rock & Mark Doty

SplitthisrockSo this weekend was the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Poets from around the country converged for this first ever festival celebrating poetry of provocation and witness. The festival was put on by the local DC Poets Against War group with the support of a number of organizations and individuals (including White Crane Institute).

The weekend’s lineup of poets included: Grace Cavalieri, Dennis Brutus, Mark Doty, Naomi Shihab Nye, Brian Gilmore, Alex Olson, Martin Espada, Carolyn Forche, Kenneth Carroll, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Galway Kinnell, Coleman Barks, Pamela Chris August, Princess of Controversy, Joel Dias Porter (aka DJ Renegade), Ishle Yi Park, Steve Kuusisto, Semezdin Mehmedinovic, E. Ethelbert Miller, Alicia Ostriker, Sonia Sanchez, Patricia Smith, Susan Tichy, Pamela Uschuk, Belle Waring.

The festival was a great success and the hope is to hold these every two years.

I got some video of Mark Doty’s gorgeous reading on Saturday night.  Doty read a number of poems including Walt Whitman’s "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic A Voice." But I was really stunned by his reading of an earlier poem of his titled "Charlie Howard’s Descent" written after the killing of a Gay boy in Maine. The video is below. Below are links from other videos I posted to Youtube.

Mark Doty reading Whitman:

Galway Kinnell stunning reading Paul Celan’s "Fugue of Death"

The Passing of a Poet

Williams From our friend Jeffery Beam…

Jonathan Williams, 79, Avant-garde Poet, Publisher, and Photographer

By Jeffery Beam

Poet, publisher, and photographer Jonathan Chamberlain Williams, founder of The Jargon Society press, one of the most renowned small presses of the last half of the twentieth century, and champion and publisher of some of the most important mid and late century poets in the United States and England, died on March 16, 2008 in Highlands, North Carolina. The cause is not known at this time. Williams, 79, began his avant-garde press while a student at the Chicago Institute of Design, naming it "Jargon" not only for its meaning of personal idiom, but after the French spring pear, "jargonelle" and the French "jargon," meaning the twittering of birds.

The only child of the late Thomas Benjamin and Georgette (Chamberlain) Williams, Williams was born on March 8, 1929 in Asheville, North Carolina, grew up in the District of Columbia and spent summers at the family’s North Carolina mountain home. His father, who designed office systems for government contracts in Washington, grew up in Hendersonville, North Carolina; his mother, a gifted decorator, was the daughter of a successful banker in Atlanta, growing up there and on the ancestral farm near Cartersville, Georgia.

Williams’ interests and talents, revealed him as a Renaissance man – publisher; poet and satirist; book designer; editor; photographer; legendary correspondent; literary, art, and photography critic and collector; early collector and proselytizer of visionary folk art; cultural anthropologist; curmudgeon; happy gardener; resolute walker; and keen and adroit raconteur and gourmand. Williams’ refined decorum and speech, and sartorial style, contrasted sharply, yet pleasingly, with his delight in the bawdy, his incisive humor, and his confidently experimental and inventive poems and prose. His interests, in his own words, raised, "the common to grace," while paying "close attention to the earthy." At the forefront of the avant-garde, and yet possessing a deep appreciation of the traditional, Williams celebrated, rescued, and preserved, as he described it, "more and more away from the High Art of the city" settling "for what I could unearth and respect in the tall grass."

Despite numerous awards and honorary degrees including a Guggenheim, numerous National Endowment Fellowships, and a Longview Foundation Grant, Williams was never sufficiently acknowledged for his achievements as a poet or prose stylist by the writing establishment, nor for his press’s generosity toward artists from all walks of life. His southern Appalachian origins created in him a deep sympathy for the underdog, for society’s throwaways, and for the unbridled creativity of the outsider. He unapologetically celebrated his gay identity long before it was fashionable. By the Reagan years he began to object even more vigorously to the failure of American democracy and education. Williams’ concerns about threats to the natural world; the loss of a humane and well-mannered society; and his distaste for hypocrisy in government, religion and the arts; made for vivid poetry, prose, and conversation, and informed his choices as a publisher. Known for his irascibility and opinions, he once stated (quoting Henry Miller paraphrasing Celine), "one of the things Jargon is devoted to is an attack on urban culture. We piss on it all from a considerable height."

Nevertheless, acclaim came despite the poetry world’s general indifference. Buckminster Fuller once called Williams "our Johnny Appleseed," Guy Davenport described him as a "kind of polytechnic institute," while Hugh Kenner hailed Jargon as "the Custodian of Snowflakes" and Williams as "the truffle-hound of American poetry." Williams held a number of poet-in-residencies early in his career. The Maryland Institute College of the Arts honored him in 1969 with a Doctor of Humane Letters, and in 1974 he received the "Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels" for services to the arts in Kentucky. Publishers Weekly awarded the press its Carey-Thomas Citation for creative small-press publishing in 1977; in the same year Williams received the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts. Williams joined a handful of other poets to read at the Carter Administration’s White House Poetry Day event in 1980. In 1998 Williams was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Distinguished Houghton Mifflin Editor Peter Davison stated in 1990, "a sensible society would set up a permanent outsize subsidy for…Williams and let him go to whatever his hand fell upon…Jargon is still searching out astonishments; it is one of the irreplaceable American small-press institutions."

Williams began his education at Washington’s Cathedral School at St. Albans, entering Princeton in 1947 where he soon found the academic track stifling. He wrote in a 1984 self-interview, "I clearly did not want to become a Byzantinist in the basement of The Morgan Library; or an art critic for The New Yorker; nor did I want to live in the world of competitive business." Escape, much to his parents’ dismay, was inevitable and leaving Princeton in his sophomore year he studied painting at the Washington’s Phillips Gallery with Karl Knaths, later joining Bill Hayter’s Atelier 17 in Greenwich Village to study etching, engraving, and printmaking.

Williams’ interest in photography and bookmaking led him eventually to the Chicago Institute of Design. Here, again, Jonathan found the commercial focus too confining, and his interest in photography deepened. Photographer Harry Callahan, a professor at the school, unable to allow a lower-classman into his seminars, suggested that Williams go to Black Mountain College in the summer of 1951 to study with him and Aaron Siskind. Before leaving for Black Mountain, Williams set off for California to meet with Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, and Kenneth Patchen, all with whom he had been corresponding. Their enthusiasms for the enhancement of words through visual dimensions, and Black Mountain’s principles of learning by doing and the tactile importance of art, were to play an important role in the development of Williams’ aesthetic principles as a poet, photographer, publisher, collector, and critic. 

Jargon and Williams came to life at Black Mountain where Williams, under the tutelage of rector poet Charles Olson, began writing more of his own poetry. Olson hired his talented student to be the college publisher. Ultimately Jargon, along with New Directions, Grove, and City Lights became one of the four most famous small presses of a burgeoning 1960s movement that continues not only on the printed page, but today, even on the Internet. Jargon’s books, in particular, became collectibles, setting the standard for the small press, and were widely praised for their meticulous beauty and refined craft, and for Williams’ ability to discover new and important talent. In the late 1950s, the 1960s and 1970s Williams was known for filling his Volkswagen Beetle with books and traversing the country, selling books out of the back seat, giving readings, and spreading the word about the many writers and artists he had come to know.

Writers and artists, nurtured by Jargon, number in the hundreds. Many of their careers began or blossomed under Williams’ and Jargon’s patronship, including American authors James Broughton, Robert Creeley, Guy Davenport, Robert Duncan, Russell Edson, Buckminster Fuller, Ronald Johnson, Denise Levertov, Mina Loy, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, and Louis Zukofsky; photographers Lyle Bongé, Elizabeth Matheson, John Menapace, Mark Steinmetz, and Doris Ullman; British poets Basil Bunting, Thomas A. Clark, Simon Cutts, and Ian Hamilton Finlay; and bookmakers Jonathan Greene, Doyle Moore, and Keith Smith. Some of the artists and photographers who contributed visually to Jargon designs include Harry Callahan, John Furnival, David Hockney, R. B. Kitaj, James McGarrell, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Guy Mendes, Robert Rauschenberg, and Art Sinsabaugh. Thornton Dial, St. EOM, Georgia Blizzard, Howard Finster, Annie Hooper, and James Harold Jennings, are just a few of the visionary folk artists whom Williams began to champion in the 1980s, and whose work is represented in his outstanding personal collection of outsider art, in his essays about visionary art, and his yet unpublished monograph Walks to the Paradise Garden. One Jargon title, Ernie Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking, took America by storm appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, with major interviews and reviews in the national media, standing alone as the book which temporarily made Jargon a household name.

The Jargon Society archives, containing personal papers as well as press materials, rest at the Poetry/Rare Books Collection‒SUNY at Buffalo. Williams’ correspondents were legion. In his letters, no less than in his poetry and essays, Williams—who was known to write under various noms de plume such as Lord Stodge, Big Enis, Colonel Williams, and Lord Nose—held court, preaching the art gospel with his usual flair. He was fond of quoting Robert Duncan, "Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond." Yale University recently purchased Williams’ personal photographic archive, including his uncommon portraits of poets, painters, writers, and artists – major works documenting Black Mountain College and Williams’ peripatetic wanderings across America and Europe. His letters, negatives, and photographic prints alone will provide bountiful insight into 20th century culture, history, sensibility, and community.

Celebrated as a Black Mountain Poet, Williams’ work argues the primary importance of imagination as a foil to ignorance, and pinpoints ignorance (whether in the arts, civic or personal realms) as the source of cultural blight. As a poet he has been described as a cross between Martial, Socrates, Basho, Tu Fu, and Richard Pryor. Experimental and open in form, the symbiotic relationship between music and poetic composition and the possibilities of beauty found in the high and low, the ribald and the erudite, the metaphysical and the concrete, set his writing apart as audaciously original. Oftentimes expressed through word-play, found poems, paeans to pastoral significance, and rails against contemporary despoliation, the poems and essays draw on a wide range of subjects and themes including politics; jokes; local speech and customs; classical music and jazz; and visionary, photographic, and abstract art. In them Mahler, Bruckner, Delius, Ives, Satie, Samuel Palmer, and William Blake commune with Mae West, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonius Monk, Frederick Sommer, and Richard Diebenkorn. Articulated through an unconventional synesthetic panache, commanding musical economy, and vinegary wit, they demand attention to, rather than carelessness toward, ecological guardianship of the arts, nature, and local traditions. His works of local speech equally capture the unpretentious nuances of country vernacular and the refinement of the “aristocracy,” as well as the sometimes dumb misapprehensions of each.

Williams’ over one hundred works, published by many of the most important small presses in this country and Britain, exemplified his playful blend of polish and earthiness, and revealed his massive and impressive circle of friends.  Williams seems to have known practically everyone of consequence in early and mid-twentieth century American alternative arts. An Ear In Bartram’s Tree (1969, University of North Carolina) and Blues & Roots/Rue & Bluets (1971, Grossman; 1985, Duke University) demonstrate his sensitivity to the nuances of language and the simple charms of Appalachian and White Trash culture. Quote, Unquote (1989, Ten Speed Press) was one of many editions of Williams’ astonishing accumulations of revelatory quotations discovered in his wide reading. A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude (2002, David Godine) offers a select view of Williams’ photographs of unique people and places accompanied by pithy, revealing mini-essays. The Magpie’s Bagpipe (1982, North Point) and Blackbird Dust (2000, Turtle Point) collect spicy essays on artists and culture.  Jubilant Thicket: New and Selected Poems (2005, Copper Canyon) contains a selection of over 1000 of Williams’ poems.

Williams and his partner of forty years, Poet Thomas Meyer, lived since the early 1970s in a seventeenth century shepherd’s cottage in the English Cumbrian hills in the summer and at the Scaly Mountain home near Highlands in the winter. For the past decade they have resided mostly at Skywinding Farm, in Scaly. Williams is survived by Meyer, their beloved ginger-cat H-B, and numerous devoted friends and supporters. In the Appalachian poem "Epitaphs for Two Neighbors in Macon County No Poet Could Forget" Williams captures Uncle Iv Owens. It seems a fitting epitaph, too, for this remarkable man of American letters, Jonathan Williams:

                                    he done

                                    what he could

                                    when he got round

                                    to it

ALL: A James Broughton Reading…

Broughton_all_cover For readers in the Bay Area, KPFA radio host, Jack Foley, and his wife, Adelle, will be giving a reading of  ALL: A James Broughton Reader, a White Crane Book, along with poet Katherine Hastings, at A Different Light in San Francisco, this Wednesday, March 5 at 7:30pm.

Hastings recently wrote of the book: ALL: A James Broughton Reader is an important book and offers us a unique experience, for it is, as Foley claims, “the very first book to allow the various aspects of Broughton’s complex personality to ‘sing’ to one another.” James Broughton was so vastly talented and led such an extraordinarily interesting life that one comes away from this gorgeous and excellently structured book wondering how we did without it. If you are familiar with James Broughton’s work, you already know you must have this book. If you have not experienced Broughton’s poetry, film or journals, treat yourself—you’re in for  “Big Joy.”

WC74 – Poetry by Jeff Mann

74_akhilleuspatroklosjeffmann Achilles and Patroclus
by Jeff Mann

Tomorrow, Patroclus.
It is fine armor, and you shall wear it.

Now, though,
do as you have always done.
Roast me the meat of the ox,

warm the rough bread,
dapple it with wild honey.  Pour
into goblets, gifts of my father,

the piney wine you brought
from home.  Bathe later,
I will bathe you. But now I love

the musk of courage,
the weary scent of you,
black hair like waves as yet unbroken

about your face, across
your breast.  How many years
have feasts meant only you and I? 

Our couch in firelight,
limbs intwined, drowsy
weight of you, beard brushing my back.

There is blood
on your brow.  Kisses
of my mouth will cleanse you.

No, no more
weapons today.  I promise
tomorrow.  Must the son of a sea goddess

say Please?
Strength loves strength.
Who can stand against our arms?

After meat
and wine, close the tent flap.
What is sweetest is your sweat,

fur-salt I lap,
dark sea-way that leads
a warrior home. Such thick arms,

such small wrists.
Inside you I feel blood-
honey, blossom, stone.  One day

these partings will depart. 
Someone will chant our names,
remember our oath to lie in earth together—

leg bones, ribs
and skulls, these fingers
clasping your still-warm wrist. 

Our wedding waits in the dark,
stained with fire, stained with wine. 
Bone-urn befitting heroes, forever’s graven gold.


Jeff Mann is a poet, writer and teacher. 
He recently won a Lambda Literary Award for his book History of Barbed Wire (Suspect Thoughts Press).  White Crane interviewed him on his memoir/poetry collection Loving Mountains, Loving Men in issue #68. 
He is the author of numerous great books of poetry including On The Tongue, Bones Washed With Wine, Flintshards from Sussex and Mountain Fireflies.
He teaches in the writing program at Virginia Tech.

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