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Silly goose eggs: Jargon on the road and beyond

 All of my silly goose eggs are in Jargon's little plastic basket, bought at a recent sale at Wal-Mart. (Williams Jargon 42 Years)

There must be five hundred signed copies for one's particular friends; six for the general public; and one copy for America. Oscar Wilde (a favorite quote of Jonathan's)

Within six months of Black Mountain's closing, early 1957, Jonathan set out on the road with Jargon, carrying along works from City Lights, Black Mountain, Divers Press, Patchen, and others. Twenty-plus years of selling and giving away books, lecturing, subscribing, begging, and teaching followed, in two beat-up hand-me-down Pontiacs and one old Volkswagen; launching the network which connects Jargon's artists and supporters today. Since then, Jargon has survived mostly through subscription and patronage. And some grants. This has not been easy: "I've always felt the best subsidy, though - the kind of support I really liked best - was one-to-one, from individuals who had the money and who cared about these things. But that, of course, limits us to people with money. And people with money are seldom interested in the modern poem....The literary arts are at the bottom of the heap....And poets, as we know, are always shooting off their mouths, and causing embarrassment. You know, political, sexual - all sorts of embarrassments are liable to come back at you if you support a book or a writer, and you have to sort of put up with what they say, sort of stand by what they say." (Patterson 110)

Jargon won its first National Endowment grant in 1967, (Henderson 119) and has since benefited numerous times from the generosity of it and other foundations such as the Hanes Foundation and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. In an 1980 interview Jonathan claimed Jargon had received more grants from the NEA than any other press. (Patterson 108) Such sources look askance these days at Jargon's un-businesslike business, particularly for poetry projects, and the last five years have been difficult ones for Jargon. In response, and indeed, throughout Jargon's history, major calls for patronage have been the usual mode. Williams once said, "The money, in one sense, is the last thing you want. You really want the particular interest and sympathy." (Patterson 113) In 1991-93 hardly a month went by, at times, without a "rattle of the begging bowl" letter, a fund-raising party sponsored by friends, or the selling of a photograph donated by Allen Ginsberg (or worse, yet, from the Jargon collection), to keep Jargon above water. "If political stands must be expressed before checks can be written, let it be known that Jargon is pro-Man, pro-Woman, pro-Animal, pro-Vegetable, pro-Mineral; pro-Israeli, pro-Ibn Arabi; pro-Dionysus, pro-Apollo; pro-Choice, pro-Diversity, pro-Raffiné, pro-Blunt, pro-Mansuetude, pro-Menade, pro-Quietude, pro-Prozac, and mite night prolapsed and next to powerless." (Williams O Tempura! 1) Some of this has paid off, but with Jonathan entering the second half of his sixth decade, and Jargon nearing a half-century, Jargon struggles harder than ever to keep the faith.

For forty-four years Jargon has rescued or preserved the reputations of writers such as Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Bob Brown, Walter Lowenfels, and Mina Loy, and defined origins of the Modernist, San Francisco, and Black Mountain schools of poetry and visual arts in the work of Siskind, Dahlberg, Anderson, Rexroth, and Patchen. Herbert Leibowitz acknowledged, "Jargon has come to occupy a special place in our cultural life as patron of the American imagination. This generative caring is evident in the format and decoration, the choice of paper and typefaces which make each edition an exquisite piece of bookmaking, the meticulous collaboration of poet, painter, and printmaker. But however attractive the books are to look at...the chief pleasure they afford is the intellectual shock of recognizing an original voice ignored by sanctioned critical opinion." (Leibowitz 56) If Jargon had accomplished nothing more than the recent rescue of Lorine Niedecker from oblivion, for example, its existence would be justified.
Jargon's challenge to American culture becomes clear when its list of over 100 publications is surveyed: (1) first books by Gilbert Sorrentino, Ronald Johnson, Peyton Houston, John Menapace, Thomas Meyer, Art Sinsabaugh, and Lyle Bonge; (2) first poetry books by Buckminster Fuller and Guy Davenport; (3) first American books by Denise Levertov, Irving Layton, and Mina Loy; (4) early works by Robert Creeley, Joel Oppenheimer, Russell Edson, and Michael McClure; (5) major works by neglected writers such as Zukofsky, Patchen, and Paul Metcalf; (6) important works by neglected British poets Simon Cutts, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Thomas A. Clark; (7) provocative works of visionary power by or about St. EOM, James Broughton, Bill Anthony, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and David Spear; (8) affirming and canon-producing works by or about Basil Bunting, Doris Ulmann, Charles Olson, and Lorine Niedecker; and (9) preeminent examples of consummately imaginative bookmaking - Anderson's Six Mid-American Chants, Patchen's Fables, Zukofsky's Some-Time, Fourteen Poets, One Artist (poems by Dahlberg, Ginsberg, Goodman and others), Clark's A Still Life, Meyer's The Umbrella of Aesculapius and Sappho's Raft, and Cutt's Pianostool Footnotes and Seepages. The list goes on. This disregards works by Williams, himself, under the Jargon imprint, including a fascinating series of postcards, "billboards," and broadsides. (Jargon at Forty and Williams Uncle) A survey of these titles would prove the variety of Jargon's ear, oftentimes the only commonality being their "difference:" "The village idiot is becoming a speciality of the Jargon Society...village idiots, who are out there in deep left field, very wacko, all on their own, idiosyncratic, autochthonous, whatever you want to call it. They are strictly their own people. This is an interest that has been built-in all along." (Dana 215)

One book stands alone - Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking, called by Metropolitan Home "the best American cookbook of the century," which took Jargon and the country by surprise and storm. A fun book to hold and read, a visionary laugh at stodge, it is the one book Jargon had to divest, becoming bigger than Jargon could or wanted to handle. An unusual cookbook, in many ways it represents a sea-change for Jargon - a shift from the poetic arts to more works of photography and visionary folk art. White Trash was both a blessing and a curse, bringing a spurt of national notoriety to the press, which, I believe, has since hindered its fund-raising abilities. The question arises as to why Jargon didn't establish an endowment with the money made from the book, but Jargon remained true to its Utopian passion - publishing the best books possible from an expanding project list, and expecting the best from others - that the financial backing would appear for the next project: "I do always try to figure out some way to get the book paid for before I publish it...But after it is paid for and published I don't much concern myself with what happens to it. I feel that if the public wants badly enough...the books...they ought to be willing to make the effort to find them. The way I see it, it is much like 'dropping seeds into the ground.' Something is going to happen, and it usually does." (Rooke 6)

Poetry books still interest Jargon, and more are forthcoming, but Williams has spent much time on the road with photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley, and writers such as Tom Patterson (who for a time served as Executive Director of Jargon from its 1985 established administrative offices in Winston-Salem), documenting and collecting the work of Southern visionary artists. Hopes of opening a museum in Winston floundered (Rodgers) but presently a large collection of important works fill the Jargon offices at Skywinding. During this time Jargon has saved the life's work of North Carolina visionary artist Annie Hooper, assisted financially and with moral support for artists such as potter Georgia Blizzard and sculptor Vernon Burwell, and influenced the founding of a visionary art museum at North Carolina State University.

The 1950-1991 Jargon archives, of over 35,000 manuscripts, photographs, documents, and correspondence were purchased by the Poetry/Rare Books Collection, SUNY at Buffalo, which also holds major manuscript collections of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. In 1991, the archives were officially open with a celebration of Jargon's fortieth anniversary. Recently, an agreement was made to take the next group of archives. Since 1983, close to 100 books have been published using the collection. (Books)

Future projects for Jargon include cataloging and printing the hundreds of negatives of photographs taken by Jonathan that fill drawers at Skywinding. These images, mostly from the Black Mountain days, will undoubtedly prove to be of major importance to historians and scholars once Jargon finds a patron to sponsor the project. (Ephemera) Photography books by Elizabeth Matheson, and Roger Manley are planned, as are poetry books by Joel Oppenheimer, Thomas Meyer, Mason Jordan Mason and myself. Jargon's forthcoming list is long, and dependent still on generous patrons and grants. Book publication is usually contingent on finding individual sponsors. (Williams Vintage)
It would be unfair not to mention some of the people who have kept Jargon moving over the years: "Our executive board is distinguished; our ancient record is extraordinary... We are not so nice as Nice People and not so good as Good People...We are on our own, near the Trail of Lonesome Pine, and that is a very long way from the Groves of Acanemia (sic)." (Williams Jargon Confronts 3) Poet Ronald Johnson was associated with the press from 1958-68, and Thomas Meyer from 1968 to the present. Meyer has designed books, written catalogs and introductions, organized events, and served in every possible capacity in the life of the press. F. Whitney Jones, a literary enthusiast and fund-raising expert, has served as President of the Board for many years. Thorns Craven, a lawyer with Legal Aid in Forsyth County, serves as Treasurer. J. M. Edelstein, former librarian with the National Gallery and the Getty Museum, is Jargon's bibliographer.

Jargon would have been impossible without the use of the patron Donald Anderson's cottage in England, or Skywinding Farm thanks to the generosity of Jonathan's parents. Williams calls David Wilk's Inland Books the best distributor Jargon has ever had. (Dana 217) And Heritage Printers in Charlotte, NC, since 1956 - when Jargon became practically its first customer - has continued to produce products of a quality admired throughout the book publishing industry. Many publishers, including Knopf and the Limited Editions Club use Heritage now. (McFee 104)

Jargon has always attempted to keep the price of its books low and the quality exceptional, thus remaining dependent - particularly considering its unusual methods of finance - on patronage. Although Jonathan lives a life which on the surface seems "high," he and Tom, too, with their minimal salaries, have been dependent on the kindness of Jonathan's mother, the Andersons, and others who have provided many of the bare essentials such as housing. Jonathan's own generosity has benefited others as a result.

Testimony to the range of largess Jargon has garnered through the years, recent patrons have included Dan Gerber, James Merrill, Roy Neill Acuff, Peter Straub, Basil Bunting, Robert Kelly, Robert Motherwell, Francine du Plessix Gray, F. Borden Hanes, and Carter Burden. The Hanes family of Winston-Salem has been a consistently benevolent supporter for many years. R. Philip Hanes, Jr. was the first family member to take interest in Jargon, and for over 35 years has been an unfailing donor. (Ephemera) Jonathan claims to be unable to "sell ice to an Eskimo or shit to a fly." (Cory 3) Belief in the Lamed-Vav Zaddikm (the 36 anonymous and mysterious pious men, to whose humility, just deeds, and virtues the world owes its continued existence) continues to give Jargon supporters their determination. (Williams Jargon Society catalog 1987 1) One such Lamed-Vovnik for Jargon has been Donald Anderson. Williams credits Anderson as the main reason that Jargon "has survived and schlepped along through the decades, tapping with its cane like wormy Lazarus, its begging bowl extended." (Williams The Jargon Society Springtime 6)

Winter Apples - "Mass" Movements

Let the bookmaking disappear - by its grace, simply disappear, leaving these good, honest words, and these direct and simple photographs.
J. Williams on Sherwood Anderson's Six Mid-American Chants
(Williams Parsons 375)

In 1990 the North Carolina Arts Council asked for expert opinions about a group of five small presses in our state. Peter Davison, distinguished Houghton Mifflin editor said, "a sensible society would set up a permanent outsize subsidy for...Williams and let him go to whatever his hand fell still searching is one of the irreplaceable American small-press institutions." (Williams Calling 2) Others have agreed. Publishers Weekly awarded the press its Carey-Thomas Citation for creative small-press publishing in 1977, and the same year Jonathan received the North Carolina Gold Medal Award in Fine Arts. Early on William Carlos Williams made an observation which still rings true, "It's a strange thing about 'the new' in which category I place what you do. At first it shocks, even repels, such a man as myself, but in a few days or a month or a year, we rush to it drooling at the mouth, as if it were a fruit, an apple in winter." (Williams, W. C. Letter) The variety, the uniqueness of a Jargon book rests in its ability to condense the eye, force Vision on its audience.

Jargon exists not without some privilege to make it easier; not without some restraints to make it challenging. Its days complement the hard, exemplary life of the mountain folk, the outsiders, the precious snowflakes and apples, that Jargon has championed. "We be modesty persons" an old broom maker's wife once said to Jonathan. (Williams White 171) Well, perhaps Jargon is not quite as humble as it should be, but it certainly is humbler than it could be.

What stubborn perfected attention resides in the North Carolina hills! These days with national estimates at serious readers of literature running from 4,000 to 20,000, Jargon still does pretty well. Jonathan loves to quote one of his authors, Walter Lowenfels, "One reader is a miracle; two a mass-movement." (Williams Joyfull 5) Jargon books remain as models of publishing craft, true to Black Mountain teachings, enforced by the happy marriage of visual and verbal language. Tactile examples of learning by doing, the books affirm elegance of process; their intent - to bring the beholder completely into the experience of a book - and through the object - poem and book, photography and book, drawing and book - to the center of artistic vision where the human and the marvelous meet.

The events that brought Black Mountain College to North Carolina, and Jonathan to Black Mountain, continue to bless our state and her arts, allowing each of us to confront the greater questions of attention, aesthetics, and exclusion. Black Mountain taught us that "the pure products of America" are often found beneath the stone walls, outside the city gates. Jargon has not backed down from the enterprise. As a grateful recipient of that heritage, I offer a doubled handful of goldenrod, sumac, galax, and shortia for my teacher and friend!

TOP | works cited in A SNOWFLAKE ORCHARD