We’re familiar by now with the designation of neglected writers as “poets’ poets”— essentially, an excuse for their continuing neglect. And we are, or should be, even more familiar with the neglect heaped on African American innovative writers, especially those who refuse to be easily pigeonholed into secure ideological or formal categories. Thomas Elias Weatherly (1942–2014) fits both categories. Since his death, on July 15, 2014, his work has continued to occupy the cracks, lost in the shadows, just another one of the ghosts of American poetry. It shouldn’t be this way. Born in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1942, Weatherly turned to poetry at the age of eight after seeing a vision of Homer, who instructed him to become a “wekwom teks,” or “weaver of words.” This experience inspired his first poem: “It did seem / That he said / Sing until dead.” Weatherly would heed this call throughout his life.
By the late 1960s Weatherly was in New York, where he taught, studied, ran workshops, read copiously, and published around scenes associated with the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. (A 1968 recording from St. Mark’s made by Paul Blackburn is included in this feature.) Associated with better-known poets like John Ashbery and Aram Saroyan (he’s name-checked in Ashbery and Joe Brainard’s 1975 Vermont Notebook), Weatherly published only four books in his lifetime: Maumau American Cantos (1970), Thumbprint (1971), Climate/Stream (1972, with Ken Bluford), and Short History of the Saxophone (2006). Weatherly’s Southern background was always crucial, and, having worked for years at the Strand Bookstore, he moved back to Alabama towards the end of his life. Taking pride in his oxymoronic status, Weatherly was a self-described “conservative Republican” whose first volume was named for Kenyan anti-imperialist guerrilla fighters; a former AME (African Methodist Episcopal) pastor who later converted to Orthodox Judaism; and a blues poet equally influenced by H.D., Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. He remains criminally under-acknowledged in critical accounts of American innovative poetry during the twentieth century. This feature aims to redress the balance, collecting republished and newly commissioned essays, reminiscences, obituaries, and other material by Weatherly’s friends and scholars, as well as a substantial collection of published and unpublished work by Weatherly himself.
The work presented here by Weatherly consists of the complete texts of his first two books, long out of print — Maumau American Cantos, published by Corinth Books in 1970, and Thumbprint, published by Telegraph Books in 1971 — as well as the poems from his joint publication with Ken Bluford, Climate/Stream, published by Middle Earth Books in 1972. I am also delighted to present early poems from manuscript, discovered in the Rosey Pool Papers at the University of Sussex. Dating back to 1964 and 1965, these are the earliest mature poems of Weatherly’s to be discovered, and provide a valuable insight into his growth as a writer. A number of uncollected poems from the 1970s are also featured, many of them followups to the Maumau Cantos sequence. Also from the early 1970s are some important prose pieces and statements on poetics by Weatherly: the introduction to the anthology of African American poetry he coedited with Ted Wilentz, Natural Process (Hill and Wang, 1970); “Black Oral Poetry in America: An Open Letter,” printed in Alcheringa the following year; and an interview with Victor Bockris, published in The Poetry Project Newsletter in 1974. The section of work by Weatherly concludes with a selection of poems from his third collection, Short History of the Saxophone, still available from Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie’s Groundwater Press, and uncollected material from late in his career, including a letter to Jerome Rothenberg which serves as something of a late-life biographical statement and what may have been the last poem he ever wrote before his untimely death in July 2014.
Forming a companion to this work by Weatherly is a series of longer critical essays and shorter tributes. Burt Kimmelman’s essay on Weatherly, “The Blues, Tom Weatherly, and the American Canon,” shows Weatherly as a blues poet par excellence, carefully tracing his emergence in the New York poetry scene, the importance of his Southern background, and the technical innovations of his work. Ken Bluford’s “Essay with Tom Weatherly in It,” first published alongside Weatherly’s work in Lip magazine in 1970, further points out how Weatherly’s use of Southern vernacular traditions both sets him alongside and contrasts him to better-known poets of the Black Arts Movement. My own essay focuses on Weatherly’s first book, the Maumau American Cantos, concentrating on Weatherly’s writing of the American South and his figurations of sexuality. The piece by Evelyn Hoard Roberts reprinted from the Dictionary of Literary Biography provides a detailed and invaluable biographical overview of Weatherly’s early career.
The third part of the project contains shorter and more miscellaneous material. There are fond reminiscences, poems, and obituaries from Akua Lezli Hope, Eugene Richie, Janet Rosen, Aram Saroyan, M. G. Stephens, Rosanne Wasserman, and the late John Ashbery. I have also reprinted two contemporaneous reviews of Weatherly’s work: M. G. Stephens’s 1970 review of the Maumau American Cantos for the Village Voice (Stephens’s obituary of Weatherly, along with a memorial poem, also appears in this feature) and Christopher Martin’s review of Short History of the Saxophone, published nearly forty years later in the Poetry Project Newsletter. There are also photographs of Weatherly taken at his reading for Telegraph Books in 1971 by Victor Bockris alongside a piece by Middle Earth founder Sam Amico on a reading for Middle Earth Books the following year, and examples of Weatherly’s “illuminated manuscripts”— the colorful illustrations and grids he provided in reading copies of his own work — provided by Rosanne Wasserman. This feature links to video footage of Weatherly’s memorial service at the Strand Bookstore, and to Marilyn Kaggen’s short film featuring footage of Weatherly reading late in life, along with manuscript and book material. Recordings of Weatherly reading his own work are scarce, but research for this project has unearthed a 1968 reading at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project that accompanies a reading from Grand Valley, Michigan, in 1971, on a newly created PennSound page. It’s to be hoped that more recordings will come to light in the not too distant future.
My sincere thanks to everyone who has provided invaluable help and material for this project: not least Samuel Amico, Ken Bluford, Victor Bockris, Michael Hennessey, Akua Lezli Hope, Burt Kimmelman, Lauri Ramey, Eugene Richie, Janet Rosen, Jerome Rothenberg, M. G. Stephens, Rosanne Wasserman, and the staff of the University of Sussex Special Collections. All material by Weatherly is printed by kind permission of his daughter and executor, Regina Nicholson. Thanks too to Julia Bloch and Kenna O’Rourke for meticulous attention to typesetting, formatting, and other production issues, and for shepherding this feature into publication.
A Tom Weatherly bibliography
Maumau American Cantos (New York: Corinth Books, 1970)
Thumbprint (Philadelphia/New York: Telegraph Books, 1971)
Climate/Stream (with Ken Bluford; Philadelphia: Middle Earth Books, 1972)
Short History of the Saxophone (New York: Groundwater Press, 2006)
Other publications (uncollected work)
Poems in Anne Waldman, ed., The World Anthology: Poems from the St. Mark’s Poetry Project (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)
Editor, with Ted Wilentz, Natural Process: An Anthology of New Black Poetry (New York: Hill and Wang, 1970)
“Weather” (14 poems), Lip no. 1 (1971): 107–19
“Black Oral Poetry in America: An Open Letter,” Alcheringa no. 3 (Winter 1971): 94–95
“This Is Provocation: An Interview of Tom Weatherly by Bockris-Wylie,” The World: A New York City Literary Magazine no. 29 (April 1974): 43–46
“Supplement to Maumau American Cantos,” Alcheringa, New Series 1, no. 2 (1975): 102–3
“the bright one” (for H.D.), Sun 4, no. 2 (Spring 1975): 133.
‘Maumau American Cantos’ (Corinth Books, 1970)
‘Thumbprint’ (Telegraph Books, 1971)
‘Climate / Stream’ (Middle Earth Books, 1972 — with Ken Bluford)
Eight uncollected early poems (1964–1965)
‘Weather’ (‘Lip,’ 1971)
Uncollected poems (‘The World Anthology’  and ‘Alcheringa’ )
Preface to ‘Natural Process’ (1970)
Black oral poetry in America: An open letter (‘Alcheringa,’ 1971)
This is provocation: Tom Weatherly with Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie (‘The World,’ 1974)
Excerpts from ‘Short History of the Saxophone’ (2006)
Reading copy of ‘Short History of the Saxophone’
Uncollected late poems (2010–2014)
Email to Jerome Rothenberg (2011)
Compilation of Weatherly reading, via Marilyn Kaggen
Weatherly’s PennSound page
Recording of Weatherly’s memorial service, 2014
Reminiscence: On Tom Weatherly and Kenneth Bluford, 1972
Reminiscence: On Tom Weatherly, October 2014
Essay with Tom Weatherly in it
Photos: Tom Weatherly, Telegraph Books reading, 1972
Poem and reminiscence
Akua Lezli Hope
‘never muted heart’: Tom Weatherly’s trespass
The blues, Tom Weatherly, and the American canon
From ‘This Ain’t No Disco’
Aldon Lynn Nielsen
On ‘Short History of the Saxophone’
Reminiscence: On Thomas Elias Weatherly
Tom Weatherly in ‘Dictionary of Literary Biography’
Evelyn Hoard Roberts
Tom Weatherly’s memorial, November 2014
On Tom Weatherly, February 2017
Obituary: Tom Weatherly
M. G. Stephens
These poems are loaded
M. G. Stephens