The History of Jimson Weed

History of Jimson Weed by Richard H. Peake, professor emeritus of English, 1998

Now that the Jimson Weed is about to undergo still another rebirth, I’ve been asked to recollect (the Wordsworthian term) the beginnings of this magazine. Let me begin with the confession that I was merely a midwife that helped it to birth. A group of Clinch Valley bards or—to use an Elizabethan metaphor—its “singing birds,” gave birth to the first issue of Jimson Weed in 1969. Professor Don Askins was their faculty advisor.

The sixties and early seventies were rife with anti-establishment sentiment, even at Clinch Valley, and the name for the magazine signaled both a bit of elitism and a desire for intellectual rebellion. Just as the plant jimson weed (datura stramonium) is poisonous to cattle, the young writers such as Don Blansette, Alan MacMurray, Frank Taylor, and Gary Slemp thought that what they had to offer was not for the common palate. The plant was also appropriate in that, although it is of tropical origin, it is commonly found in “waste places” throughout much of the United States, but especially in the South.

A look at old issues of the Jimson Weed reveals, I think that it has been a publication of high literary quality throughout its history. The publication of the magazine was, from the first, dependent on student interest and effort. Faculty advisors gave advice and helped, but the Jimson Weed has come out over the years only when there has been sufficient interest to bring it to press—no forced flowers have been brought forth on its pages.

Not that there has ever been a lack of excellent material. Clinch Valley (now UVA Wise) has always had a number of excellent young writers, many of whom were hampered more by their lack of assurance than their lack of ability. However, not all writers will spend the long hours that are necessary to bring their works to the printed page. As fate had it, I became more involved with the Jimson Weed after that first issue and continued as faculty advisor for many years thereafter, and Professor Catherine Mahony eventually became faculty advisor. During the last decade there was insufficient interest to bring out additional issues.

Over the years there have been many students who were willing to put forth the necessary hours and effort. Student editors and writers such as John M. Clarke, Betty Farmer, Ben Rasnick, and Ron Short have set a high standard for the Jimson Weed. With Ben and some of his successors, we went through what one might term our “Appy-beat” period. Ben was very much taken with the Black Mountain poets and their influence on the poetry of the Beat generation, yet the quality of the material that was published in the Jimson Weed was not compromised by whatever fads happened to be in ascendancy. Authenticity of voice and craftsmanship remained the guiding principle for choosing works to print. The result was a publication that was both recognizably Appalachian but also quite cosmopolitan.

I feel sure that in its new life the Jimson Weed will both prove worthy of its tradition and will break new ground.

Gillian Huang-Tiller, professor of English, and Ken Tiller, professor of English

In the fall of 1996, then Dean of Faculty Professor Glenn Blackburn suggested the need for reviving the Department of Language and Literature’s literature and art journal, the Jimson Weed. With Prof. Richard Peake’s saying about the journal’s title, Poison for cattle, inspiration for poets,” in mind, we began the circuitous process of reviving the Jimson Weed in the fall of 1997 after a twelve-year hiatus.  Not knowing what to expect, we publicized a call for submissions. To our surprise and delight, the interest in creative writing and the arts proved to be widespread at UVA Wise.  Submissions—more than we could use—began to pour in. Selection proved to be a lengthy process. The journal finally came to shape in late April of 1998 after an all-night session with our student editors Sarah Davis and Laura Cyphers. Scraping together something less than a shoestring budget, we produced two hundred and fifty copies of the first new series issue, which marked the return of the Jimson Weed. The spring 1998 “honey jar cover” edition has since become something of a collector’s item at UVA Wise.

Since then, the growth of the journal has been a source of pleasure and pride for all involved in its production. It continues to fuel and feed on college and community interest in poetry and art, with submissions coming in from campus, the Wise area, the region, and sometimes from further afield. The journal’s companion event, Coffee Night, has likewise grown, from about a dozen or so readers and listeners in the library lounge to evening gatherings of a hundred or more to celebrate the journal’s premiere.  The event has featured such nationally-known writers as Nikki Giovanni, Robert Morgan and William Harmon, Rita Quillen, Ron Rash, Dean Rader, Sophia Starnes, Adriana Trigiani, Stephen Cushman and Lisa R. Spaar, Sheri Reynolds, George Ella Lyon, Michael Chitwood, Suzanne Clark, Sharon Hatfield, Herb E. Smith and Jack Wright, Elizabeth Barrett, Richard H. Peake and Catherine Mahony, Darnell Arnoult, Sara M. Robinson, and Robert Gipe.

Former Managing Editors’ Notes, Dorinda Holmes, Spring 2004

All things change over time. The Jimson Weed is no exception. It has been my privilege to have been a small part of the Jimson Weed’s changes.

Although I had lived in Wise County all my life and had attended Mountain Empire Community College, I had never heard of the Jimson Weed. I first became aware of the journal when I transferred to UVA Wise my junior year of college. I noticed a stack of them on a table in Zehmer Hall. I picked one up and became hooked. I found the variety offered by this publication to be very intriguing. I caught myself checking that table frequently, hoping to find more versions of the journal. At the time I was unaware that it was published only once a semester. I had hoped that it would be a seasonal publication.

It was not until the fall of my senior year that I became involved in the Jimson Weed’s publication. Gillian Huang-Tiller approached me when I was enrolled in one of her classes. She asked if I would be interested in working with her and Dr. Tiller to put out the fall edition of the journal. The previous managing editor had graduated and they needed to find someone willing to take on that role. I happily agreed.

As managing editor, I was constantly amazed at the quality and quantity of the work that was submitted to us. I was saddened that we were not able to publish everyone’s work. After talking to Dr. Huang-Tiller, I began to actively promote the journal within the community. It was our hope that we could promote more interest in the journal. I would post fliers at MECC, local grocery stores, and anywhere I thought it would be noticed. I even had my teenage daughters try to get submissions from their classmates.

Our efforts paid off. We received enough submissions that we were able to produce a high quality journal. We then began to actively promote Coffee Night. When I first became involved, Coffee Night was held in Alumni Hall. There would be a nice turnout for the event. Now Coffee Night not only manages to entice up to 100 people to listen, but it has managed to showcase the efforts of some of the premier writers of our community and nationally known poets, such as Nikki Giovanni.

For me, the Jimson Weed has become a family effort. When I graduated, my daughter, Lacie Holmes, succeeded me as managing editor. My contributions became limited to promoting the journal in my school and encouraging my students to contribute. I currently teach at the Wise County Alternative Education Center, where I always keep several editions of Jimson Weed in my classroom for my students to peruse.

I have no doubt that in the future, the Jimson Weed will continue to grow and flourish, maintaining the high standard of quality for which it is known. Everyone who has ever participated in Jimson Weed (poets, writers, editors, artists, photographers, and faculty advisors) has managed to carve out a small part of our community’s literary history for themselves. We should all be very proud of our efforts and the Jimson Weed.

Damean Mathews, spring 2015 

I hope to leave this college and this journal with a legacy those who went out of their way to believe in me can be proud of and one that I can look back on with fondness. I can see the difference coming here has made for me and I will never forget that. Had I not accepted the invitation to edit the Jimson Weed, I might never have seen such progress for myself and I couldn’t be more thankful. This journal started the ball rolling for me and good things have happened ever since, all because one man had a love of the craft and got support from people who understood and had some faith in him. I am forever grateful. Thank you all.