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Maurice York, interim director of ECU’s Special Collections department in Joyner Library, examines a collection of manuscripts, paintings and personal documents that belonged to North Carolina poet A.R. Ammons. The collection was donated to East Carolina University. (Photos by Jeannine M. Hutson)


Ammons Papers Start New Collection at Joyner Library

By Jeannine Manning Hutson

The donation of correspondence, manuscripts and artwork by acclaimed North Carolina-born poet A.R. Ammons has established the Overcash-Wright Literary Collection at East Carolina University.

The collection will be housed in Special Collections at J.Y. Joyner Library. Reid Overcash and his wife, Susan, the donors of the Ammons’ works, were honored April 25 with a small reception at the library.

The collection, which includes personal correspondence and manuscripts as well as 14 watercolor and still life paintings, is an excellent look into how Ammons worked, Overcash said.

Personal papers from North Carolina poet A.R. Ammons are included in a new Joyner Library collection.

“There are in-depth manuscripts, works in progress, private and business correspondence,” Overcash said. “It’s the best part of his personal correspondence.”

Overcash had purchased the watercolors painted by Ammons more than 25 years ago. He combined the written materials with the watercolors to make a more complete collection for donation.

He obtained the Ammons papers from Dr. Stuart Wright, who lives in Ludlow, England. Overcash and Wright have been friends since they were children growing up in Roxboro.

Overcash said of his friend, “He really is the collector. He knew Ammons and other literary figures. He did business with them; he collected most of this.”

The appraised value of the donation is approximately $165,000; however, the value for scholars will be much more, said Maurice York, interim director of ECU’s Special Collections.

“To have a student inspired by someone else’s work – that’s the most important thing we can accomplish,” York said. “The collection might open students’ eyes to the types of library materials they didn’t know existed here, and it could change someone’s life. Not everything is on the Internet.”

A native of Whiteville, Ammons was born in 1926 and was graduated from Wake Forest College. He began writing poetry while serving onboard a U.S. naval destroyer during World War II.

Before arriving to teach at Cornell University in 1964, Ammons attended graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley and worked several non-poetry related jobs, including elementary school principal in Cape Hatteras and real estate salesman.

His first book of poetry was published in 1955.

When he died at age 75, in 2001, Ammons was Cornell University’s Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry emeritus and had won virtually ever major prize for poetry in the United States, including two National Book Awards – one in 1973 for “Collected Poems, 1951-1971” and another in 1993 for “Garbage.”

The citation for Ammons’ 1973 National Book Award reads in part: “In the enormous range of his work, from the briefest confrontations with the visual to the long powerful visionary poems, he has extended into our present and our future the great American tradition of which Emerson and Whitman were founders.”

For all of his accomplishments, Ammons is not well known in his home state, said Alex Albright of ECU’s English Department. Albright edited “The North Carolina Poems A.R. Ammons,” published in 1994, and he spoke about Ammons at the reception honoring the Overcash donation.

In his afterword to that collection, Albright wrote, “Defining an A.R. Ammons poem as ‘North Carolinian’ may seem provincial and limiting, but Ammons is a poet known better in the small but extensive world of his art than in his home state.

“These poems are really not so much regional as they are for a region of readers, those in North Carolina who’ve somehow managed to miss the word that Archie Ammons from down about Whiteville is one of the greatest American poets.”
The titles of the poems in that work reflect the North Carolina that Ammons knew: “Life in the Boondocks,” “First Carolina Said-Song,” “Yadkin Picnic,” and “Cascadilla Falls.

In “Alligator Holes: Down Along About Old Dock,” Ammons writes of longing for places that had disappeared for him:

“Lord, I wish I were in Hallsboro, over by the tracks,
Or somewhere down past the Green Swamp around Nakina, or
Traipsing, dabbling in the slipping laps of Lake Waccamaw:”

Overcash hopes the donation of the Ammons works is just the beginning for the Overcash-Wright Literary Collection.

“I would like to see us use this as a foundation,” Overcash said. “There are other opportunities out there to expand our collection with writers either from eastern North Carolina or ECU, who are developing a strong reputation in their field and who would like to have their papers in a literary collection.”

Bruce Southard, chair of the Department of English, is excited about the possibilities having Ammons’ work at ECU allows.

“The Ammons collection is important for a number of reasons. It provides insight into the writing process that can be used by aspiring writers. It gives insight into the nature of the creative process itself. And it allows our students to engage in such matters as textual editing and research methodologies that they might want to pursue in graduate school,” he said.

Examples of what Southard describes are the poems typed on adding machine tape. Or an entry in Ammons’ small shirt-pocket sized appointment book for a Saturday in 1979, “When I thought myself huge and was tiny but now I’m not as small as I think.” Or another thought scrawled over a weekend’s blocks, “Breaking Silence.”

After the collection has been cataloged and materials, such as the watercolors, cleaned and preserved in acid-free materials, the library plans an opening reception next year for the public.

Overcash said he is pleased to build a base for a strong literary collection at ECU.

“It raises the bar for us at ECU. People could come to ECU to do research for their doctorate or master’s theses,” said Overcash, who graduated from ECU in 1973 and is a member of the ECU Board of Visitors. His daughter, Alexandra “Zandy” is a junior at ECU.

This page originally appeared in the April 27, 2007 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at