David Wilk and Thomas Meyer talking about Jargon Society

May 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

TM1aPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how they believe publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing.  I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.  This new interview reflects my interest in the history of independent literary publishing, an area in which I have been active for a long time. And this particular conversation reflects some longstanding personal relationships as well.

Jargon Society, founded in 1951 by poet, essayist and photographer Jonathan Williams (1929-2008), was operated for many years by Jonathan alone, then with friends and associates, and later with his life partner, the poet Thomas Meyer. The long list of Jargon publications reflects the aesthetics, thinking, whimsy and artistic vision of Jonathan Williams, for whom the press was, along with his own writing and deep friendships, his life’s work. Jonathan’s commitment was singularly to find and present the unusual, mostly brilliant, sometimes quirky work of writers, artists and photographers those he believed in and found exalting, transformative, and sometimes just plain strange.

Over the course of a half century, beginning when he was a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina studying with Charles Olson and other mid-century writers, artists and thinkers, Jargon published an incredible range of highly individualized creators, some now famous and fully accepted into the American canon. The list of books and broadsides and other works published by Jargon numbers 115 pieces, and wonderfully reflects the enthusiasms of Jonathan’s life. Included are early works by Black Mountain identified writers like Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Joel Oppenheimer,  then unknown but now well known writers like Denise Levertov, Kenneth Patchen, Michael McClure, Guy Davenport, Gilbert Sorrentino, Louis Zukofsky, Buckminister Fuller and Larry Eigner, and outliers like Douglas Woolf, Peyton Houston, Alfred Starr Hamilton and Bill Anthony. Still others must be accounted to Jonathan’s indefatigable championing of the then virtually unknown writers whom he felt must be shared, including Lorine Niedecker and Mina Loy.

The photography books on the list represent JW’s brilliant visual sensibilities, and include work by Doris Ulmann, Lyle Bonge, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, John Menapace and Elizabeth Matheson, among others, altogether a meaningful aesthetic contribution to photographic publishing. And so do the books on outsider art (which Jonathan was following long before the popular culture caught on).

In all cases, at all times, Jargon books were reflective of Jonathan Williams’ extreme commitment to making beautiful books whose look and feel would always do justice to the writing, photography and art within.

Williams and Meyer, along with a diverse cast of supporters throughout the world, devoted an immense amount of time and energy raising money for the varied endeavors of the Jargon Society. Fundraising was, it seemed, almost as much work for the press’ principals as creating great books. Asking people with money to support the kind of literature and art they might not themselves find compelling is not an easy thing to do. Making pleas for money year after year can be exhausting and it is rare today to find an arts organization whose founder maintains the role of chief fundraiser throughout its history.

Jonathan Williams and Tom Meyer have been hugely influential to my own work as a writer, editor, and publisher. For me they each exemplify the committed life of the artist.  Over the years I published two books of Jonathan’s poems and will soon publish his third and final collection of essays. Over the years I often visited Jonathan and Tom in Highlands, North Carolina, and learned a tremendous amount from both of them, as well as developing deep and long lasting friendships with both. And for a number of years, Inland Book Company, the company I co-founded, was the primary distributor for Jargon, a great and sometimes sobering experience for all of us whose responsibility was to sell these quirky and decidedly noncommercial creations.

Jonathan Williams was always a prolific letter writer; correspondence with the ever witty Williams was a deep and abiding pleasure.

Jargon is an exemplar of what a modern literary press can be: individualistic in the extreme, with a compelling vision of the breadth of art and and our experience of its varied forms, expanding the horizons of all who have the opportunity to be touched by the works and their beautiful singularities.

Recently, in order to continue the legacy of the Jargon Society, Tom has gifted the press and its books to the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, where its work can continue in a new context.

I wish I had been working on this interview series long enough ago to have talked to Jonathan Williams with the recorder running. But it was my great pleasure to talk to Tom Meyer about Jargon Society, and of course Jonathan himself, with whom he partnered and worked for forty years. This is a one hour conversation packed with information, evoking the history of one of the great literary accomplishments of the twentieth century.jonathan.williams.cox

A Jargon Society bibliography checklist was published by the extraordinary and wonderful Jacket online magazine.

Appreciation of Jonathan and Jargon by Ron Silliman; an interview with Jonathan by Leverett T. Smith here; feature on JW in Jacket 38.

(Photos of Tom Meyer and Jonathan Williams by Reuben Cox)


Margot Peters: Lorine Niedecker, A Poet’s Life

February 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, Poetry, WritersCast

978-0299285005 – University of Wisconsin Press  – Hardcover – $34.95

I have loved the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, and been deeply influenced by her work and life since being introduced to her writing by the great poet and independent literary publisher, Jonathan Williams, just a few years after her untimely death in 1970.   His outstanding press, The Jargon Society, published one of the largest collections of her work during her all too brief lifetime (T & G: Collected Poems, 1970).  In the years since her death, she has been discovered by many writers, scholars and general readers and her work is available now in several great collections, including Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy, from the University of California Press.

For the many who still do not know of her, Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was born, raised, schooled and lived almost her entire life in Wisconsin.  She was a poet her entire adult life, mostly self-educated, but always deeply involved in the milieu of modernist poetry and experimental writing.  The most famous of her peers were William Carlos Williams (who knew and appreciated her writing), Louis Zukofsky (with whom she had a very deep and complicated relationship), and George Oppen and Carl Rakosi, among many others.  But as a woman writer who worked hard for a living during a time when men ruled the literary roost, she wrote mostly in obscurity, known only to a small number of other writers who appreciated the brilliance of her imagination and craft.

My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
the sun

Margot Peters’ new biography, Lorine Niedecker, A Poet’s Life, is a wonderful book, reflecting Peters’ own love and appreciation for her subject’s life and writing.   Lorine’s life story is important to read about, whether you have read her poetry or not.  It’s a powerful introduction to a complicated and unique American life.  Lorine never had it easy.  Her family life was difficult, her poor eyesight was a difficulty for her entire life, her relationships with men were complicated and often painful for her, and she never received the attention her writing deserved.  Peters tells the story of her life in great detail, but is never boring.  She interviewed people who knew Lorine where she lived in Wisconsin, and even those who, like me, think they know Lorine and her work will learn a great deal about her.  Peters is perceptive and clear eyed about Lorine and aware of the difference between the life as lived and the poetry as written.  For the poet, it is always the words that matter.  Peters knows this too.

Reading about Lorine Niedecker continually reminded me of the power of her intellect and the depth of her brilliance as a poet.  She honed and sharpened constantly, like a jeweler bringing a stone to life.  Her reading was vast, her intelligence and clarity of vision virtually unmatched.  I do not think it is an understatement to call Niedecker one of the greatest poets America has ever produced.

Poet’s work

advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoff
from this

Every poet, every writer, should read and absorb these words.

If it’s not obvious, I have been smitten by this poet’s work for a really long time.  This biography is a terrific addition to the Niedecker opus, and is highly recommended.  I had a great time talking to Margot Peters, whose knowledge of Niedecker, Wisconsin and poetry is broad, deep and very well put together.

Please visit the Lorine Niedecker website to learn more about her, sample some poetry, and to get a feel for Fort Atkinson, where she lived most of her life.  You can visit Margot Peters’ website for more about her book as well. There is now an annual Niedecker Poetry Festival in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin every fall.

Books by and about Niedecker:

New Goose. Prairie City, Ill.: Press of James A. Decker, 1946.

My Friend Tree. Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorne Press, 1961.

North Central. London: Fulcrum Press, 1968.

T & G: Collected Poems 1936-1966. Penland, N.C.: Jargon Society, 1969.

My Life By Water: Collected Poems 1936-1968. London: Fulcrum Press, 1970.

Blue Chicory. Edited by Cid Corman, New Rochelle, N.Y.: The Elizabeth Press, 1976.

From This Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker. Edited by Robert J. Bertholf, Jargon Society/Inland Book Company, 1985.

The Granite Pail: Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker. Edited by Cid Corman, North Point Press, 1985.

Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy, Berkely: University of California Press, 2002.

(note, I owe apologies to LN – in the poem Poet’s Work above, I could not get the spacing to work right here, please read it either on the Niedecker site or in the Collected Works to see it the way the poet meant it to look on the page)