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Martha Elmore, Academic Library Services, looks at watercolors by North Carolina poet A.R. Ammons, on display in ECU’s Joyner Library. The watercolor shown in the foreground is Watercolor #4 (1978). Elmore is looking at Watercolor #5 (1980). (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Joyner Exhibit Features Ammons’ Paintings, Papers

By Jeannine Manning Hutson

Correspondence, manuscripts and artwork by acclaimed North Carolina-born poet A.R. Ammons are part of an exhibit at J.Y. Joyner Library.

The Special Collections Department of the library has catalogued the Ammons works that were donated in early 2007 by Susan and Reid Overcash of Raleigh, establishing the Overcash-Wright Literary Collection at East Carolina University. Reid Overcash, who graduated from ECU in 1973, is a member of the ECU Board of Visitors.

The exhibit, the first time these items have been shown to the public, continues through June 30, 2009.

Jonathan Dembo, special collections curator at the library, was responsible for choosing which of the 713 pieces of Ammons’ artifacts would be included in the exhibit, since there is limited space. Dembo built the exhibit around an essay by Roger Gilbert, “Footprints from a Poet’s Path: The A.R. Ammons Collection at East Carolina University,” which is included in the exhibit catalog.

Gilbert is professor of English at Cornell University, where he taught with Ammons for years. He was also a friend of Ammons and is working on a book of Ammons’ life and work.

“In order to help viewers understand and appreciate the materials in this exhibit,” Dembo said, “an exhibit catalog includes thumbnail illustrations and brief descriptions of almost every item in the exhibit.” “I tried in a limited way to show as many aspects of Ammons’ life as I could in the scope of relatively small exhibit,” Dembo said.

Included in the exhibit are eight watercolors painted by Ammons. Gilbert estimates that Ammons painted approximately 1,000 watercolors in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“He used watercolors,” Dembo said, “in combination with his poetry. He would write a poem in longhand and then illustrate it.” The exhibit contains a striking example of this approach and a poem that he typed on adding machine tape.

The exhibit also includes one of Ammons’ notebooks. In total, Ammons filled five notebooks with poems, observations, and phrases that he jotted down between the first beginning in 1952 and the last from 1975. ECU’s collection has three of these notebooks.

“He wrote in these periodically,” Dembo said. “He’d put it down and after a few weeks pick it back up to write scraps of poetry or phrases.”

Dembo noted that even though the exhibit space is limited, the entire Ammons collection is available digitally for faculty, students and the public to read and study. “We have digitalized every page of his little books,” he said. “Eventually we will link to those individual images, and that means that anyone in the world with a personal computer can read these works online.”

Even though he is one of America’s most famous poets in literary circles, many North Carolinians might not even recognize Ammons’ name.

A native of Whiteville, Ammons was born in 1926 and 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.”

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.

“Thomas Wolfe and Archie Ammons will be known as the two great North Carolina writers. He took what he learned on the ditch banks of his home near Whiteville and took that with him even when he moved away,” Albright said. “He had the ability to make the common place magical.”

The Overcash-Wright Literary Collection focuses on Ammons’ early life in North Carolina, his education at Wake Forest College and the first 30 years of his career, Dembo said.

Gilbert writes in his essay of the ECU collection: “Archie Ammons is on display here in all his brilliance and complexity: as a North Carolinian in lifelong exile; a wary disciple of the wind and of his literary elders; a restless experimenter in language and paint; a compulsive wordsmith; a maker of large and small books; and above all a poet—one of the finest America has ever produced.”

“A.R. Ammons’ Poetry and Art: A Documentary Exhibit” will continue in the Special Collections Department in Joyner Library through June 30, 2009. Visit for more information.

This page originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at