Excerpt from forthcoming
Who Do You Think You Are:
Reflections of a Writer’s Life
This excerpt, focused on how Torra got involved with editing the work of Stephen Jonas, is from the memoir Who Do You Think You Are: Reflections on the Writer’s Life.
Gerrit Lansing introduced me to Stephen Jonas. Molly and I were throwing a party after a reading. It was the early stages of my friendship with Gerrit. He asked me if I’d ever heard of the poet and I told him no. I wouldn’t have Gerrit explained, most of his work was out of print and not many people knew about him. He was self-educated, gay, mixed race and at the time of his death he hadn’t been a household name in poetry. Jonas had lived at various locations in Boston, a friend of Gerrit’s, known only within a local circle and a handful of New American Poets. Gerrit filled me in about Jonas. He’d published in some significant little magazines. Friend of Boston poets John Wieners and Joe Dunn.
Part of a legendary group of mid-50s Boston poets that included Wieners, Dunn, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser and Ed Marshall. He’d published two books of poetry later in his life, but they were out of print and hard to find. Gerrit said I think you’d like his work. It happens that just a few days later I was visiting Bill Corbett. I asked him if he knew anything about the Boston poet Stephen Jonas. Without a word Bill turned towards a nearby bookcase, looked for a moment or two, reached up, pulled out a book and placed it in my hands. Exercises for Ear, by Stephen Jonas. On the subway ride home, I opened the book, and during the remainder of the ride, and the duration of the day, I was consumed. The poems were pithy, gritty, sassy. They seemed to have so much of the qualities I loved in William Carolos Williams’ poems—with a jazz beat. They were fragments, starts and stops, often trailing off unfinished. Like a jazz saxophonist riffing off short bursts and moving on to something else—improvisatory and spontaneous. Some were highbrow and I could sense a classic sensibility, others were of the street and the lowbrow. They were about Boston, sex, drugs, people on the fringe. These poems were Beat— of the New American Poetry. I wanted more. When Stephen Jonas died of a drug overdose in 1970, his apartment was full of his notebooks, papers, letters and manuscripts. Before everything got tossed in the apartment clean-up, Gerrit Lansing and another friend collected all the papers. Eventually they were made the literary executors. Everything was stored in cardboard boxes that Gerrit kept in his basement. By the time I first got my hands and eyes on everything the boxes were dilapidating and many of the papers thin and faded. At the time I was editing lift magazine, and when I learned that all the work was out of print, I asked Gerrit if I could make a selection of poems and put them in an issue of my magazine. He answered with an emphatic yes. It seems there was so much poetry there I hardly knew where to begin. Later, when lift evolved from a xerox zine to a desktop, bound, published journal, I decided to do a double issue dedicated exclusively to Jonas’s writing. I’d been digging deeper into the Jonas papers, familiarizing myself with them. There were long poems, short ones, the Exercises for Ear and a long epic poem titled Orgasms. The lift double issue brought Jonas back into the eye of the poetry world. I remember when I finished with its production, my old friend Bob D’Attillio who helped with the design (the new technology was beyond my skills) told me to put a box of them away because someday they would be worth money. Twenty-five years after the fact, used copies occasionally
surface on the internet for as much as $150. The lift Jonas double issue led to a contract with Talisman House, Publishers who wanted me to edit a selection of Jonas’s poems and write an introduction. The work brought me even closer to Jonas. Gerrit Lansing allowed me to bring all the papers and notebooks home and for the next two years I pored over the work in my studio. At one point the complete edition of Jonas’s Orgasms (all the various poem versions) was spread out on the floor. Jonas rewrote many of his poems, so in many cases there are numerous versions of short and long poems. My task in the beginning was to determine which version Jonas would have wanted in print. In some instances, he dated things so that I went with the most recent. Other times I went with the versions of poems he saw into print in his books or in the variety of literary journals that had published his work. One of my biggest problems editing Jonas has always been spelling. Jonas often spelled certain words by ear. At the same time, I believe he typed at lightning speed and that might lead to typos. Again, I went with the spelling of words of poems that he saw into print. Sometimes I went on a gut feeling. I also had to face the fact that during certain periods of times Jonas had anti-Semitic views and they found their way into some of the writing. He called Chinese “Chinks” and Italians “Dagos.” Most of the anti-Semitics came from his reading of Pound, whose economic theories Jonas embraced. Moreover, in addition to serving time in federal prison, Jonas had been hospitalized with mental health issues. I’m not sure if there was ever an official diagnosis. It seems to me he could have been manic depressive as he could get lost in long bouts of deep depression or hit ecstatic bouts of mania where he would be up for days and hear voices. This is not an excuse, but it is not uncommon for people who suffer from paranoia to seek out particular groups as enemies. I think that could be, at least partially, the source of his racism. It’s interesting that I found the majority of his racist rants in his longer works, where the writing could become incoherent, products of Jonas’s sleepless nights and manic driven writing. The Talisman House book brought Jonas’s poetry into an ever-widening circle. For years I gave talks and readings, sat on panels as the interest in Jonas grew. Last year the great City Lights Press brought out Arcana, A Stephen Jonas Reader which I co-edited over the course of several years. It was the apex of Jonas’s long slow comeback into the poetry world and nearly 30 years, half my life, of editing the work. It began with a tip-off from a couple of friends, developed into what became an apprenticeship into the world of poetry. The work continues. Just this year I gave at talk on Jonas at the University of Pennsylvania
Thanks to PFP Publishing for the use of an excerpt from Joseph Torra’s Who Do You Think You Are: Reflections of a Writer’s Life (2021).