Spring 2001



January 2001

gw: I'll be in town Saturday for your reading with Ashbery. What have you been up to since the last millennium? Got ten minutes for me after the reading?

rc: Sadly i won't have - just that the company goes off to dinner. Far simpler is to do the interview by email - albeit it's like coals to Newcastle at this point, in some sense at least. See recent one at this website - http://www.writenet.org/poetschat/poetschat.html - and I'll momently do another with JazzTimes, for CD coming out in March, etc.

gw: Thanks yes I have read and enjoyed them. I have been to Newcastle. The coalfields are closed. They're into North Sea Oil now. Email will be fine, how about five or six questions?

rc: Do two batches of three questions each. That way I don't think I'm taking a test.

gw: A fair plan. You know the strange thing is I was trying to avoid the sense that, in coming up with interview questions, I was the one taking the test. It was getting in the way of my simple sense of pleasure in the opportunity to talk with you and elicit a few thoughts.

gw: In the Cortland Review you quote William Carlos Williams saying that he'd rather go off and die like a sick dog than be a well-know literary person in America. Could you give some insight into what that life is these days? Particularly in light of your comments about the importance of the company of poet/peers such as Denise Levertov and Charles Olson.

rc: I do think a company is crucial, and mine was terrific - it's as though we were the Musicians of Bremen or something, just blessed with communal powers. Now it's very hard to see them go - as first Olson, then Duncan, then Denise, then Allen - and now Ed Dorn. That aspect of age I was not even thinking about.

gw: You mention the passing of these members of your company - does John Dewey speak to you regarding the way community changes for the lifelong student, and to this phase in the life of the community? "I'll hate to leave this earthly paradise," writes Olson. How does it feel to see the poetic earthly paradise, or community, in which you have been an integral member, leaving you?

rc: It feels awful. It's what one doesn't think of when considering growing old -- like watching the neighborhood emptying out, houses go vacant, stores close. Who's left that shares the "great adventure" Robert Duncan speaks of with respect to his last visit to Charles Olson just before the latter's death? Friends thus are the fabric of one's life. No man, woman or child is an island. "Where did everybody go?"

gw: Dewey, whose ideas were among the foundation of Black Mountain, stressed how school should be an extension of civil society and continuous with it, and the student encouraged to operate as a member of a community. Have you subscribed to this as a teacher? As a student yourself? What community is your classroom an extension of? How are the key communities you operate in as a student/teacher integrated (ie, Black Rock, the Academy of American Poets)?

rc: Put simply, the terms of the common world are those one uses as definition, as context, as term. I cannot think of a literature or a politics or an aesthetic as existing significantly apart from that source. A specific neighborhood will hardly be the whole world, so to speak, but it is one where one's given to begin. My conduct as a teacher I'd hope could put as Mark Hopkins had it: student on one end of the log, teacher on the other. I think the need is to be as best one can the same person in all the myriad contexts of human interest and person. Not to be simply "consistent" but not to be a chameleon of social adaptation either. The most simple term would be to have "integrity," whatever irony that word may now provoke. I think Allen Ginsberg had it and it's his conduct as poet and person I'd use as instance.

gw: I suppose that it can be taxing when people come up to you and ask you to "be" Robert Creeley for them. The fatal attraction of a public figure. The dull intensity of it. Kerouac in Northport, fending off and yet falling in with the young people who threw stones at his bedroom window, in search of revelation or kicks or joy, "their Jack."

So here's a question for you: is it a problem trying to maintain a fresh sense of your self and your work when you have to deal with people whose interest in you, for all its originality to them, begins to seem as pointless and repititious as Coals to Newcastle?

rc: Long ago a friend said of his first wife, that she said she wanted to be a singer, but what she really wanted was to be famous. I finally don't have any "self" to define or promote, certainly none with respect to people's expectations. Often someone shows up who knows me as the person who wrote FOR LOVE, for example, a book published forty years ago. I am hardly any longer its evident author.

In any case, I think teaching has kept me in touch with the contemporary very usefully, that and our children. That is certainly where I want to be, put it, as any daily reality.

Poetry doesn't usually make one rich and famous. My neighbors here in this working class part of Buffalo, Black Rock, may some of them know I'm a poet, but it's the neighborhood which most defines us. We live here. At the university where I've taught now since 1966, often students have taken classes with me without any sense I was also a poet. It's not that I was hiding, but some are interested and some are not.

A few neighbors know writers as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac -- but it's useless to posit stereotypes and statistics as authority in any case. Who knows what they know, literally, or have the time to -- it's a harshly work-a-day world without the least sentimentality. What I can make clear is that I am not here in Black Rock to soak up that culture, etc. It's simply where I feel at home and where we live and have raised our son and daughter.

But again it's a place, not a mirror or a possession - it's a common ground with other people, all kinds - and many of them not the least interested in poetry. I was impressed reading in the NY Times or some such a few years ago, that less than 1% of a random sampling of persons in NYC asked who Norman Mailer was, came up with the right answer.

gw: How many would know William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell or Charles Bernstein? On the other hand, how many would know Monica Lewinsky? OJ Simpson? Who, after all, is Norman Mailer to the public?Yet in your professional associations you travel among the members of a highly specialized aesthetic community for whom knowledge of major players is a measure of basic functional literacy. And it is in a profession whose aims are often fundamental human aims - expression, communication, didactic argument.

How does that gap effect you? Your art?

rc: That's a very idealized sense of the company, either of universities or of literary clusters. Again generalization is almost impossible. A good number of my favorite writers would probably be unknown to the company at the American Academy of Arts and Letters -- I certainly was for years and years.

It doesn't make me feel particularly schizophrenic but it does at times make me lonely for someone who shares the same respects and fondnesses. I suppose a good number of people feel the same thing for any number of different reasons and contexts. Again it seems community comes of what one does share, so that's where the life one does have gets its grounding and definition -- not in what's absent.

gw: Donald Justice speaks of a man who is more father than son now. To what extent did you become the teacher, and no longer the student?

rc: I think the two terms are tacitly inseparable, i.e., when a teacher loses the situation of student, feels he or she has now learned the "subject" thoroughly, that's the end of any teaching I'd respect. Mutual inquiry, mutual possibility of knowing something, of findings out some data heretofore unrecognized -- that's where the action is.

As the sculptor John Chamberlain put it, Black Mountain was a place where people (all of them) were more interested in what they didn't know than in what they did. Levi Strauss proposes teachers are people who didn't want to leave school.

gw: On the matter of style. In his review of LIFE AND DEATH, Forrest Gander calls it singular, elliptical, syntactic, idiosyncratic, an illustration of your "signature style." To me your experimentation with spoken language goes to the jazzy disjointed zen-like approach of Kerouac riffing off Neal Cassady's speech.

Though to me Kerouac's macro and splashy and expansive, while your work goes to the minimalist, more in step with Williams. The inward craftsmanship of a Netsuke artist.

Kerouac's approach was a natural way to create an extended page after page of text. Has your approach constrained your ability to create the "longer work?" How have you worked to overcome that?

rc: No doubt it has, just that I was after a kind of compaction, call it -- a concentration that could "get said" as much as possible in one instant. I thought of composers like Webern, for example. I was shy of "going on" and
wanted to "hit and run." Too, my great models were poets as Williams and the lyricists generally (Herrick, Campion, Emily Dickinson). Finally I thought to move beyond this kind of insistent enclosure by making "continuties," a "day book," for example, such as PIECES is, or PRESENCES equally. This mode let me continue formally while using the same characteristic economy.

I believed as Whitman and Zukofsky, one writes the same poem all one's life. It's a continuous pattern. I recall Allen saying when my COLLECTED POEMS was published in the early 80s, "Who would have thought those little poems would make such a big book!"

gw: Allen may have called them little poems, but if the experience at the Dia Center was any indication, they fill are capable of filling a large space. Your poem "Immoral Proposition," for example, from the fifties, with its show-stopping opening line "if you never do anything for anyone else/you are spared the tragedy of human relation-/ships..." How have you found your "reading voice" plays to large audiences in the context of the subdued, slightly minimalist yet conversational early writing style?

rc: As it happens, an old friend and former graduate student here, Joel Kuszai, just sent me note of a website he's involved with, which has the sound file of a reading I gave in New York back in the mid-60s (Ed Sanders introducing). Since it's almost forty years ago, I hear it with that objectivity, call it. I am very moved by how particularly the formal terms are holding me literally together -- the rhymes, the pacing of the line, the rhythms -- and the intensity managed. So the reading is hardly "subdued" or "conversational" in the usual sense. Rather, it's insistently tense with emotion -- as I realize so much of my writing then was, almost exhaustingly so. Well, one can listen for oneself: http://www.sunbrella.net/content/poetry/index.html. One reading is worth a thousand words! Apropos, I have a CD just out of as yet uncollected poems: ROBERT CREELEY (Jagjaguwar JAG901). That can tell you what then happened.

gw: Dylan Thomas' notion of his "craft or sullen art" gives a sense of the necessary aloneness of the writing experience. How does a person like you balance the demands of career with that necessary aloneness?

rc: I've never bought Dylan Thomas' implicit sense of necessary isolation. That's an image of the artist, poet included, I think is finally useless - however moving that particular poem may be. Poetry is based on communal sources. However the poet may manage it, being alone is not to my mind a requisite condition. At least it hasn't been for me and I feel displaced and often too lonely, when I am working apart from my family.

gw: How might your life have been different if you and Olson never established a dialogue? How has this shaped your openness to communication with writers not yet established?

rc::Vincent Ferrini had sent me some poems of his which I'd effectually rejected for a mag I hoped to start, etc. So that's what he begins talking about -- my comment that they, the poems, "were looking for a language."

Otherwhere Williams remarks how the fact a letter he'd written D.H. Lawrence never got an answer persuaded him always to answer those he got as best he could. People being human, it's hard to keep up at times. But the letters Olson and I wrote were a particular case, a use to both of us that nothing else could quite manage. We needed a chance to think of things, to test and consider various senses of poetry -- and those letters proved the perfect ground. The fact of my being his "Figure of Outward," as he calls me, isn't because I'm a friend or pen pal or nice guy -- it's that our letters give him chance to bridge to that world the writing was trying to speak to, to work in, to affect. For some inexplicable reason, I was able to return his volleys.

So, of course, my life would have been different, very different, had I not had such a friend as he was, such vivid and particularizing company as his letters were in the remote places in which I and my family so often lived -- North Lisbon, NH, Fontrousse in the south of France, Banalbufar in Mallorca, etc. I might have become an ultimate Kafka!

gw: Your published work is wideranging and diverse, but in an overall sense where did you think your poetry was going to take you? Where has it taken you? Where would you like your poetry to take your readers?

rc: :I hadn't the least idea, ever -- I was along for the ride. It was, in Robert Duncan's great sense of it, an "adventure" -- and just what it was to be, or to come to, wasn't known. One just went as one must -- there weren't choices. In any case, it's been my company and my resource ever since. Despite the despairing circumstances one had sometimes to face, poetry was the way -- the "how to get said what must be said," as Williams writes in "The Desert Music." Or, as Ted Berrigan said, "I'd like to take the whole trip." As for one's readers, one hopes they'll get taken wherever it is they had wanted to go -- even if they didn't know it.



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