William 'Wonderful' Jenkins (1948-2019)

'Not Dead Yet': The passing of a Tempe poet

Every time I outsmart myself,
hiding behind a glass wall of too many words,
right reason painfully reminds me
like a sudden snowball in the face,
“Talk is cheap, but whiskey costs money.”

—William Wonderful, “The Search”

Shortly before his death on August 27 of last year, William Wonderful completed what may have been the last of his many self-published chapbooks. In the preface, he reflected on recent health issues and the concerns his friends and readers had expressed. In the tradition of Mark Twain, he made assurances to those who loved him. “In effect,” he wrote, “speculations of my death are grossly premature, for I am ‘not dead yet.’”

This wry prophecy by William Wonderful speaks of a man who refused to recognize the power of The Reaper to end one’s voice and mark on the world. William was a gentleman of the highest order, a ubiquitous presence in Tempe’s Maple/Ash neighborhood whose ready wit and good nature enriched all who knew him.

The Cartel Coffee Lab, Tempe’s congenial tribute to the great coffee houses of old, was one of William’s stomping grounds. Passing my attention between grading papers on my laptop and enjoying a well-brewed cup of Joe, I noticed the man who often showed up in the late afternoon, slowly ambling between the tables, occasionally stopping to chat with a customer or courteously hawk the booklets he carried in a small white box. In a brief documentary film, The Ballad of William Wonderful, he explained his strategy for getting those around him to open up. “It’s all about the eyes,” he said. “If I stare at a person and they return my stare, then I talk to them. If I look at a person and they look away, I figure your loss, not mine.”

Well, I caught his eye once and we set to talking. He placed his box on the table, took out several of his chapbooks and said what he would say in many subsequent encounters: “I have something here I think you may find interesting.” And so I did. William’s collections of poetry and prose were a smoking deal at five or 10 dollars apiece. I collected 12 of them over the years.

In our many conversations, I learned that William and I had much in common. We both had seen the many changes Tempe had gone through since the 1970s, and had both served in the Air Force (he retired in 2005). Like me, William had been educated at ASU, receiving his BA in English in 1977 and an MA in 1981, and had taught English at the university level for years as an adjunct for institutions around the valley. His inscription on the cover page of one of the books I bought from him offered good advice from a fellow teacher who clearly knew the drill. “Life is more than waiting for semester’s end,” he wrote. “Enjoy the wait.”

William Wonderful chose his unusual pen name from the Bible. He explained in The Ballad of William Wonderful:

"Being a Christian, as it is said in the Book of Isaiah, speaking of the coming of the Savior: “And his name shall be called Wonderful.” And seeking a pseudonym, it’s only natural that I choose the name of The Most High: Wonderful."

He extended the name to everyone around him. As he wrote in another inscription to one of my purchases: “Welcome back to the Family of Wonderful, where everyone matters.” 

At Cartel, William was well-known by customer and staff alike. Not only was he a frequent patron, but he would often read from his works in evening performances, accompanying himself on a portable keyboard. I learned of his death from barista Trenton Clark. I hadn’t seen our mutual friend in Cartel since William told me he was going into the hospital for cataract surgery. Clearly, his problem had been more serious. Trenton, who like me had a collection of William’s chapbooks, told me that those who knew him had held a memorial gathering in his honor outside of Cartel on Ash Street. Cartel catered the event.

So long, William Wonderful. See you down the pike.

Larry Ellis

Image of William "Wonderful" Jenkins from his self-published poetry collection, titled "Not Dead Yet."