Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems and Photographs

Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems and Photographs

by Jonathan Williams



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781885983497
Publisher: Turtle Point Press
Publication date: 04/01/2000
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Williams (1929-2008) founded the Jargon Society—a publisher dedicated to experimental fiction, photography, and visionary folk art—and has championed the underdog, maverick, and outsider in the arts for fifty years. He has also published over 100 of his own books, pamphlets, and broadsides of poetry, essays, and photography. He lived on Skywinding Farm in rural North Carolina.

Read an Excerpt



Dear Sir,

I, too, am sobered by the revelation in Judy Karasik's article ("Take a Poet Home Today," May 11th) that the death of Mrs. Frederick Bowen in Bartholomew, Alabama, leaves only 83 poetry readers in the entire nation. I cannot find Bartholomew in my road atlas. I was hoping to locate it near the hamlet of Lower Peach Tree and then get in the VW and discover both the source of Helicon Creek and Alf the Sacred River.

    I must tell you that 83 genuine poetry readers sounds much too high to me. I put their numbers at somewhere between the number of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers (several sighted in Cuba recently) and the number of California Condors. Walter Lowenfels has made the clearest statement of the modern dilemma: "One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement." The 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.

    Surely the collective efforts of 64,980 busy, untalented, published poets, plus the National Entombment for the Arts, plus the Associated Arts-Demolition Councils of America have convinced all sane people that modern-type poetry causes Herpes, AIDS, Leprosy, Lumbago, Terminal Boredom, and/or Acne! I was, thus, horrified to find seven graduate students in Lexington, Kentucky, being taught the work of e. e. cummings and J. Williams by Professor Guy Davenport. They said they found me much more obscure than mr.cummings, because I persist in putting funny words like Odilon and eidolon in a poem. Happily, I had an hour to let them hear the noises the poems made. Now they say, it's all so easy a Yale Critic could understand (if not like) the results.

    As the publisher of White Trash Cooking, may I offer one health tip to the clutch of recidivists who will persist in reading poetry no matter what. Always boil your poetry books in a pot likker made of alum, molasses, collards, and fat back. With any luck all the pages will say glued together, forever.

    May Mnemosyne rub it on us!

    Jonathan Williams


This morning (November 16th) the news is that Ernie Mickler, genuine-book-author-feller of two of the most magnannygoshus works of the 1980s, White Trash Cooking and Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravins, died yesterday of Kaposi's Sarcoma at his home in the Moccasin Branch section of Elkton, Florida. Ernie was 48. He leaves his collaborator and companion, Gary Jolley. A month ago it was the poet Joel Oppenheimer, who at least made it to 58, and died of a "nice" old-fashioned disease like lung cancer. Within months, two of the more arresting poets in California (Jack Sharpless) and London (David Robilliard) have been cut off in their thirties before more than a handful of other writers and friends knew what they were beginning to do.

    We are back in the 19th century, where the folks who brought us the old élan vital, i.e., the friskier levels of Bohemia, were all dying of the pox (Baudelaire, Schubert, Wilde, Delius); or being wasted by consumption (Chopin, Keats, Firbank); or odd combinations of booze, boys, and lunacy (Rimbaud, Dowson, Poe). Think of things people lived with, feeling miserable most of their lives. Walt Whitman's obituary (1892) speaks of: "... pleurisy of the left side, consumption of the right lung, general miliary tuberculosis and parenchymatous nephritis ... a fatty liver, a huge stone filling the gall, a cyst in the adrenal, tubercular absesses involving the bones, and pachymeningitis." The Anhedonists stayed at home, pretended to be straight-arrows, read the Gideon, and longed for the Dark Angel to get all those people who got more than they did.

    White Trash Cooking came out of Nowhere-America like the wet, uninvited hound dog at the lawn party, sprinkling water and iconoclasm all over the culinary nobodies pretending to be somebodies. It soon had the likes of Alan Davidson (in The Sunday Telegraph), Neil Hanson (Editor of The Good Beer Guide), Harper Lee, The New York Times, Vogue, Helen Hayes, William Least Heat-Moon, Roy Blount, Jr., and Senator William J. Fulbright passing the collard greens and begging for more. A gentleman named Coleman Andrews, writing in the magazine Metropolitan Home, said White Trash Cooking was, by far, the best American cookbook of the century. The Jargon Society had to borrow from its board members to publish the first edition of 5000 copies. Over 600,000 have since been sold through the auspices of Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, California.

    America turned out to have refined, finger-lickin, rustic peasants, just like France and Italy. We just call them folks. Some of their food was stunning. Some was killing. It went down a treat. Recently in Basel, Switzerland, a distinguished antiquarian bookseller told us of introducing "Tutti's Fruited Porkettes" and "Grand Canyon Cake" to his staid, suddenly enraptured guests. One imagines Erasmus washing down "Rack of Spam" with a good bottle of Alsatian Riesling. (Meister, may we suggest the 1983 Reserve from Colette Faller's Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg? Hit'll drink!)

    Ernest Matthew Mickler was born in Palm Valley, Florida, a bastion of White Trash aristocracy. Said Ernie: "Where I come from in North Florida, you never failed to say "yes ma'm" and "no sir", never sat on a madeup bed (or put your hat on it), never opened somebody else's icebox, never left food on your plate, never left the table without permission, and never forgot to say "thank you" for the teeniest favor. That's the way the ones before us were raised and that's the way they raised us in the South." After high school, he became a duo with Petie Pickette, writing and singing country music. They sang with top people like Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Orbison, and Patsy Cline.

    Later on, he talked his way into Jacksonville University and Mills College and obtained BFA and MFA degrees in their art departments. For years during his meanderings in the South, he filled paperbags with handed-down recipes from such mouth-watering towns as Flea Hop, Waterproof, Slap Up, Cut Off, Hot Coffee, and Burnt Corn. His correspondents included great unknown masters of the cookstove and iron skillet: Big Reba, Edna Rae, Sheba Spann, Mona Lisa Sapp ("You can turn this salad everyway but loose and it's gonna be good!"), Bonnie Jean Butt, and Retha Faye. Hillie Manes assured Ernie: "This Lemon Chess Pie is so good it'll make you drop yo drawers." I wonder if the tarte au citron I once experienced at Fernand Point's Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne was any better? It certainly cost more.

    Well, a lot of fun and sass and gusto left us when Ernie went. He was a "natural man," as they say down South. He wrote like he talked, a kind of a-literate Eudora Welty. "The sun melted like butter over his sweetcorn thoughts," to use Irving Layton's wonderful words. His thousands of color snapshots are as plain, authentic, and tasty as his recipe for Cat-head Biscuits. Ernest Matthew Mickler had a "gom" of friends—they spread from the old pals in Florida to the salivating outside world, which loved his two books. In three short years, he became an outlandish institution. There is a copy of White Trash Cooking on a library table in the Nymphenburg Palace in Bavaria. Bless his heart!

(Unpublished, 1988)


Once upon a time, I used to know an honest, yet humble, advertising executive in Buckhead, Georgia, by the name of James Dickey. He was surely the only man in the Peach State who could talk about F.S. Flint, R.E.F. Larsson, Mina Loy—I mean poets, whether they were minor ones or major ones. He would get a wild good light in his eyes. Well, that was 17 years ago. Mr. Dickey, having run through the Poetry World like green corn through a cow, now masquerades as Sheriff Super-Jock, of Deliverance County, Jawja.

    The Legend is depressing, and I wish he would stop it. But the ineffable public loves poets who are "all man" as much as it mindlessly devours the truth of headlines in the National Enquirer: SPACE ALIENS TURNED OUR SON INTO AN OLIVE. Despite testimonials to the contrary, Mr. Dickey doesn't think I can write a lick; and I don't trust a thing he says anymore (which is not a happy state to exist between two poets who once seemed to be friends). I bring him up, unkindly, because the uses of fame allow James Dickey to demand $3500 for a poetry reading. Even a remote institution of the higher learning like Catawba College, Salisbury, NC, thinks it's getting a bargain if they secure him from the agent for a grudging one grand.

    I would like to suggest to Mr. Dickey (and all poets who swing and sway before the public at the moment for appreciable amounts of cash —whether they be Holy Men or Migrained Academics) that they give a benefit reading for a poet they have never heard of, who never goes anywhere, who has never read any poetry since Edwin Markham. I'm talking about Alfred Starr Hamilton: 41 South Willow Street, Montclair, NJ 07042.

    Mr. Hamilton is 61 years old. He pays $40 a month for a linoleumed cell in a rooming house. He goes to the A&P on Saturday night for the bargain chicken pieces, picks up cigarette butts, smokes a little Prince Albert, gets clothes from the Salvation Army, and asks for a pint of Four Roses when anyone comes to visit him (which is about twice a year). In 1964 his mother left him $7000. He has been surviving, somehow, ever since —in his oddly calm, disembodied, happy, desperate way. But, in the last letter of his I've had the heart to open, he was saying: "I have received a subpoena from a Newark court, for vagrancy. But I understand these subpoenas are not to be answered. I hope so."

    The Jargon Society published The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton (with drawings by Philip Van Ever) in 1970, because he is an ignored caitiff; and an "original" poet, tuned in, like Blake or Dickinson, to a singular and moving world of words that he offers gladly to one and all. Nobody reviewed the book. Not one foundation or arts agency I have written to has made the slightest response to his plight. William Cole, the editor, is the only person in the United States who has bothered himself. He secured a small emergency grant of $250 from P.E.N., which is used up. One of these days we'll pay no attention to a snippet at the bottom of a column in the Montclair Clarion, to the effect that Mr. A. S. Hamilton, self-styled poet, has been declared redundant by the State of New Jersey and put away in some bin.

    The older I get the less I am able to be charitable to charitable institutions like the Ford Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation and the New Jersey Arts Council. Cyril Connolly had their mentality pegged long ago: "Everything for the milk bar, and nothing for the cow." You'll not find them hopping on the train and going to 41 South Willow Street to find out with their own eyes. They stick to the five poets a year that Time magazine knows the names of. Poetry in the agora is no different from any other hard-sell item. The ladies and gents of the coteries with fingers in all the pies are the ladies and gents who pull out what withered plums there are.

    If I lose sleep over this, Alfred Starr Hamilton doesn't. His indifference to scorn and neglect make William Blake seem more worldly than he was. But, Mr. Blake had his engraver's job, his Kate, and his disciples. Mr. Hamilton has nothing, except the 10 poems a day that the Poem Fairy leaves under his pillow for typing out by lunchtime—if there's any lunch—, before he takes his walk to the Public Library to read the paper he cannot afford to buy. This could be the story of any of three million sad old men, but it isn't. It is the condition of one poet who deserves just a modicum of dignity from the Society of Deaf-Ears. Montclair! What a town for this to be happening in: Republican Montclair. He wrote: "Well, I lost a hand abroad, but that was a hand for punching a typewriter and they thought that would do. They didn't like me at all. They were full of swaggadocio. They wanted more swag instead of culture."

    We have man looking out of a window, making poems up—thousands of them, year after year, putting them into shoe boxes. He simply needs about $2000 to scrape along on for this year, 1975. Assuming the worst (that poets, arts councils, critics, universities, foundations will not do the job they are there to do), is it asking too much for a few private persons reading this column to do the simple human thing? Viz., put a check or a money order in an envelope and send it to New Jersey.

    Charles Olson, one of my masters, taught that "he who controls rhythm/controls!" Maybe that was way down in Russia, where eggs cost a dolla, according to the old Blues lyric. I doubt that even Orpheus, who could move those trees and melt those rocks in the days when poetry had alleged clout, could melt the ice-floes in the contemporary heart? Again, Hamilton: "There are more than enough forest brambles and underbrush and real entanglements of all kinds. I guess they think I am immune? I'm not immune, I'm just out in the open. There aren't as many bees as there used to be."

(The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1975)

Table of Contents

The Editor, The New York Times Book Review1
Ernest Matthew Mickler (1940-1988)3
Alfred Starr Hamilton, Poet6
Paying Respects10
"Coming Through Unfettered" as Ray Says15
Feral & Sidereal23
Amuse-Gueules for Bemused Ghouls29
An Interview with Basil Bunting37
The Hardy Boys Go to Work at Carmen Sutra's Bookstore50
"I Don't Care If I Never Get Back"53
Robert Duncan (1919-1988)59
The Adventures of James Richard Broughton62
A Garland for Ian Gardner71
A Particularly Non-Arty Response to the Coracle Man77
"We All Live in a Yellow Submaroon"80
Bill Anthony's Greatest Hits, by William Anthony85
The Clerihews of Clara Hughes89
Clarence John Laughlin95
Wild Gould Chase100
Letter to the Editor of TheSpectator112
The Jargon Society114
Paul Potts (1911-1990)123
Henri Cartier-Bresson Says That "Photography Is Pressing a
Trigger, Bringing Your Finger Down at the Right Moment"125
And the Running Blueberry Would Adorn the Parlours of Heaven143
Joel Oppenheimer (1930-1988)154
The Moon Pool and Others156
Cocktales to Please Priapus167
Making the Unsaid Say It All171
"They Called for Madder Music and for Stronger Wine"174
April Fool's Imitation-Type Test to While Away a Little Time177
The Poetry of Work180
"Who Knows the Fate of His Bones?"187
"Back in Black Mountain, a Chile Will Slap Your Face "193
The Talisman, by Stephen King & Peter Straub196
Homage to Art Sinsabaugh (1924-1983)199
Virginia Randall Wilcox (1909-1991)210
"Hiya, Ken Babe, What's the Bad Word for Today?"213
James Laughlin (1914-1997)221
Ronald Johnson (November 25, 1935-March 4, 1998)227
James Harold Jennings (April 20, 1931-April 20, 1999)235
Harry Callahan on Haguro-San240

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