Friday, March 09, 2007

Robert Creeley on Black Mountain College

There's a new post at NatureS ... well, it's a new post, but the article that is its primary occasion actually dates to 1978. "Robert Creeley: Here and Now" includes some reflections by Creeley on Black Mountain College in its final years:

Black Mountain was more than a college. It was actually a collection of real people.

It wasn't trying to save the world. ... The one real dilemma of that reality was that the world wasn't finally there, although people lived and died, tried to commit suicide, put themselves in extraordinary intellectual and existential patterns, but somehow the world was absent. .. . There was an inexorable sense of practicing for the world ... One thing now in retrospect is that extraordinary rehearsals did take place - Black Mountain was an extraordinary rehearsal of possibilities.
Take a look.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Now on NatureS ...

Any new posts about Black Mountain College, the diaspora of Black Mountain College faculty and students, and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center are now going up on NatureS; the Editors (not to be confused with these Editors), er, I just decided it was simpler to maintain one blog than two. See you there.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bearing Witness

"Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry."- William Butler Yeats

One of the pleasures for me of looking again at Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the situation surrounding its publication on its 50th anniversary has been re-encountering some of Ginsberg’s other work, and being reminded just how insightful he could be as witness to the actual conditions of his time. Like Whitman and the Melville of the wrenching Civil War poems, Ginsberg turned imagination’s visionary power on the felt reality of his own condition in time and place, and took, as it were, not a portrait but a CAT scan of his America, producing powerful poems of witness.

The origins of the word “witness” are obscured, of course, in the fog that covers the sources of the language we know as English. Somewhere back beyond the common Teutonic roots of all the Germanic tongues, back in the common Indo-European morphemes that underlie most of the western languages, linguists point to ‘woid’, ‘weid’, and ‘vid’, all having to do with sight (from ‘vid’ we also derive video, visual, and the other members of that complex), as forms near its root. From the beginning, then, it named the activity we know as “seeing”, even as the modern word does in one of its usages. Along another line of development from that early form we come to the ancient Greek ‘istorin, to see for oneself, from which we get “history” – which discipline most often, now, does not involve such unmediated encounter, though it did for Herodotus. But “witness” can also be a speech from belief, something known not by the eyes but by the heart, some construct that gives form to the apparently chaotic universe. To witness, then, is to see, and also to report on what has been seen with eye and heart, to give testimony.

Poets, given the roots of their practice in the observation of both the outer and inner worlds, offer a unique form of witness, one located in the resolutely particular human experience. The poet or poets we know as Homer, for example, witnessed the war-filled world of the Mycenaean era in verse that remains, in the hands of a good poet, very much alive, notwithstanding its great antiquity. Here, for instance, Lisa Jarnot’s new translation of the beginning of Book XXII of the Iliad:

So then the Trojans
poured down through the city
and fled there like deer
that were brightenedwith sweat,
and they drank
and they cooled down
their thirst,
and they
rested themselves
in the city’s embankments

and all of the troops of Achaeans
with their shoulders to steady their shields

and then there was Hector
where fate made him stay
in front of the city and alone at its gate.

No matter its age, a poet as good as Jarnot makes her text a new witness to lived reality.

Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Wendell Berry, to name just a few, stand among the poets who have, in their various voices, engaged the contentions of the social world and provided powerful works of witness that are not just rhetorical quarrels with others, in Yeats’ phrase, in the recent history of our language. It’s something poets do when the muse of their moment in time summons them to the task.

Friday, May 19, a powerful roster of poets will gather at the Center to voice their own witness. The poets who will join together for the occasion include Emoke B'Racz, Laura Hope Gill, Glenis Redmond, Chall Gray, Rose McLarney, Ingrid Carson, and Thomas Rain Crowe, recently returned from his first trip to San Francisco since his work there as a key figure among the Baby Beats.

The reading grew from the WPVM show by and about poets and writers, their craft and ideas – that would be WordPlay, which airs Sundays at 4:00 and is rebroadcast on Tuesdays at 5:00 PM and Wednesdays at 7:00 AM. WPVM’s signal (at 103.5 FM) has very limited reach, but the show is also available as streaming audio from the station’s website at Several of the poets reading on the 19th have already been featured on the radio program, and the rest will likely have shows in the future. Tune in! Having completed more than a score of shows, the production group for the program decided to take other steps to help foster the community of poets in the region, and sponsoring readings that would provide venues for poetry more public than the usual small gallery or bar seemed a good next step.

Asheville poet Jaye Bartell, a member of the WordPlay group, spoke to the nature of the occasion:

Community is the highest expression of resistance to brutality, whether social, economic, or otherwise. One needs constantly to clear the cataracts of fear and despair from the eyes, and poetry offers such a cleansing of vision by affirming the clarity possible of an experience, within or without.

Even the more acerbic work uplifts the heart, perhaps more than the bathetic, intentionally "meaningful" variety, for exactitude is relieving, and calling an emotional or social condition by its closest name, even in the bitterest truth, relieves the heart of its eagerness to equilibrate itself in a confusing situation. Witnessing then, arriving at such a position as to see from without, and not be seen within, the mire of whatever larger horror, is the apex of value for any poem wishing to serve the toiling, dear human heart.

With such an extraordinary and diverse assembly of poets, we can no doubt expect ample insight and witness of the sort that initiates the healing of wisdom – another word, curiously, that springs from the same archaic root.

Doors open at 7:00 PM. There's an admission fee of $7, or $5 for members and students with ID.

A nod to Ron Silliman, on whose blog I encountered the Jarnot translation. The image is an engraving by Johann Balthasar Probst (1673 - 1748) held by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

New Light on Hazel Larsen Archer

“ … Fame's Boys and Girls, who never die/And are too seldom born"

Emily Dickinson in 1865

There’s a mystery that lies at the heart of fame and success in the world, and artists, no less than the rest of humankind, are subject to its whims. Many artists don’t find audience in their own eras, and finish their lives toiling away in obscurity; for them, good fortune means simply being able to continue their work and leave a legacy to the future. Others do find success, wealth, and fame in their own times. What makes the difference? It’s a puzzle. Are those who do not find conventional success simply working so far in advance of the formal and perceptual conventions of their eras that their works cannot be seen clearly by their contemporaries? Certainly the quality of their work, however that might be defined, isn’t the sole variable in the calculus of outcome. Van Gogh, famously, didn’t sell a painting in his lifetime. Friday two weeks ago, March 17th, was the anniversary of the opening of the 1901 show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris that made Van Gogh's work famous. Van Gogh, unfortunately, had committed suicide eleven years earlier, never knowing the impact his work would have on painters to come. Lady Luck, the ancient goddess Fortuna, sometimes has a wicked sense of humor.

Black Mountain College, for almost a quarter century a local cauldron of innovation in the arts, produced, of course, artists who renewed (as we can now see) the languages of the visual arts in their era – and often invented whole new tongues. Some of them also became successful in the world. Some did not (or haven’t yet, I want to say, as the youngest of them sail through their seventies), though they did what they could to that end. Some seem to have chosen to focus on other pursuits, having, perhaps, dismissed their own work as artists as insignificant because it did not generate the response that work by their peers received, or having realized that it would take another generation’s eyes to appreciate what they’d attempted.

Of the several remarkable photographers who taught at the college, most have now, fifty years after the college closed, achieved some substantial recognition, at least from their peers. Harry Callahan, to my eyes one of the very great artists of the camera, is perhaps the best known, though even for him success as an artist in the world (as opposed to the darkroom and classroom) came late in life.

One unheralded exception, her work still lost in obscurity, would be Hazel Larsen Archer.

Until, that is, now.

Hazel-Frieda Larsen came to the college from Wisconsin in the summer of 1944, and returned in 1945 to study with Josef Albers; during her years there she also studied with Buckminster Fuller, Robert Motherwell, Walter Gropius, and the photographers Beaumont and Nancy Newhall – this was, after all, the amazing Black Mountain College. After graduation, she joined the faculty, and became the school’s first full-time teacher of photography in 1949, partly, as David Vaughan notes in his soon-to-be published essay on Archer, because of her work during the summer program of 1948. That was a remarkable summer, even for Black Mountain:
John Cage taught music; Merce Cunningham dance; Buckminster Fuller architecture. Willem and Elaine de Kooning were invited at Cage’s suggestion. (Although de Kooning had recently had his first one-man show at the Egan Gallery in New York, they were glad to go because they had been evicted from their apartment.) Richard Lippold was sculptor in residence; his wife, the dancer Louise Lippold was with him and studied with Cunningham. Ray Johnson and Arthur Penn were among the students.

Larsen made photographic studies of Cunningham’s motion in dance, and made portraits as well of Cunningham, Cage, and Johnson. Other of her subjects included Josef and Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, the de Koonings, Fuller, Charles Olson, and Dorothea Rockburne. Later she also photographed Robert Rauschenberg and his wife Sue Weil.

The motion studies are particularly striking. Cunningham, as Vaughan says,
improvised movement as she took the pictures: he remembers that it was difficult because Larsen was very close to him—she was a victim of polio and was confined to a wheelchair, so that she remained stationary while he moved.

Photographing dance is challenging, because the dancer’s movement can cause blurring if the light doesn’t permit very fast shutter speeds – and Larsen was working long before fast multi-coated lenses were available. Many photographers attempt to make a virtue of necessity and use blur to suggest the dance’s motion. Larsen, though, apparently wanted to capture Cunningham’s motion as the eye sees it, and we don’t see blurs unless the motion is mechanically fast, like the turning of a car wheel. Master of timing and eye that she was, she was somehow able to produce images that are clear, the motion beautifully arrested in all its abstract animal glory.

She also, during her years at the college, made photos of trees, leaves, grass, the doors of the “Quiet House” at the College (a small building for meditation), a nearby Baptist church and its graveyard, and other features she discovered in her world.

Larsen left the college in 1953, as its longstanding financial problems began to overwhelm it, and married Charles Archer, who was a student there. They continued to live for several years in the town of Black Mountain, where she opened a studio and took mostly family portraits. In 1956, the year the college closed, she and her husband moved to Tucson, Arizona; she lived there until 1975, when she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Though her work had been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Photo League in New York, she stopped exhibiting after 1957; she focused for the rest of her life on her work as an educator. She died in 2001.

Fortunately, her daughter Erika Zarow preserved much of her work, and it is now scheduled to see the light of day once again. On April 21st the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center will celebrate her creative achievement both by publishing the first extensive collection of her work, and by opening a show in its gallery that will feature many of the book’s images, including some of the motion studies of Cunningham. The book, Hazel Larsen Archer/Black Mountain College Photographer, publishes over a hundred of her photographs, some incorporated in the interpretive text (the essay by Vaughan I’ve quoted from above is part of it), others as full-page duotone reproductions. As those who know me will attest, I’m nuts about books, and this is a handsome book. Alice Sebrell, Project Coordinator for the book (and a gifted photographer in her own right), is enthusiastic about it and the role she thinks it might play:

Since its inception, the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center has
tried to publish and exhibit the work of some of the college's undeservedly under-appreciated artists, in addition to that of the well known and the famous. To focus only on the already famous would misrepresent the true nature of Black Mountain College.
Hazel Larsen Archer's photography is going to astonish people! It's very, very good, and we are really pleased to be able to publish this collection of her work, so the images can be seen and enjoyed by people all over the world. It's a book that will be appreciated by lovers of photography and by people who are interested in Black Mountain College.

Dame Fortuna permitting, the book should do much to lift this gifted photographer from her undeserved obscurity.

The night before, April 20th, you might want to catch the symposium on Black Mountain College being offered at 7:00 PM by the Asheville Art Museum. It brings to town some really notable Black Mountain College scholars, including Mary Emma Harris, author of the wonderful The Arts at Black Mountain College, which is available again in paperback. Her fine Black Mountain College Project website provides historical material on the college, information on some of its faculty and students, a few memoirs, and other resources. The afternoon of the Archer opening, she’ll lead a tour of the college campus, now Camp Rockmont; call the Center at 350-8484 for more information.

The photo by Hazel captures Hazel and her daughter Erika; date unknown. The print is by Alice Sebrell. There are additional photos by Hazel Larsen Archer, printed by Alice Sebrell, at NatureS

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hazel Larsen Archer Show Up Soon ...

..And in the meantime, I've got a post up at NatureS with some photographs that'll be featured in the new Center monograph, Hazel Larsen Archer / Black Mountain College Photographer, to be published concurrently with the opening on April 20th. She had a unique eye, so check them out.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Quiet Times ...

Leaving late winter, things are quite at the Center. Behind the scenes, though, much is afoot. Poet Thomas Meyer kicks our Spring season off with a reading of his translation of the Daode Jing on March 22nd, and April will bring events, publications, readings ... well, check back.

There are posts on Thomas and his translation up at NatureS, here and here.

While posting will remain infrequent here for now, check out the Center's web site or NatureS. Or come visit us in downtown Asheville, and begin to discover why The Wall Street Journal (yes!) found us one of the best small museums in America.

The photo is of Alice Sebrell, She-Who-Makes-Things-Happen at the Center, our often unsung heroine, an extraordinary woman. A photographer herself, she is, of course, very uncomfortable in front of the camera, so this is a rare glimpse of her.

Till later ...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Howling

Unless all my instruments are miscalibrated, the reading on Friday was enormous fun for all involved. Gillian Coats couldn't make it, as she missed her return flight from Jamaica (I'm sure she hated that!), but Sebastian Matthews brought another member of the Warren Wilson writing faculty, Gary Lilley, and Gary seemed to find the spirit of the evening congenial, and read some interesting work. Richard Cambridge did a great job of getting the evening underway, and some of our poets just went off the hook - as usual. Jaye Bartell was animated, and Ted Pope... well, Ted's always animated. It's what he does. He didn't stand on the seats Friday, but he did walk through the room, and come crawling back to our "stage" on his hands and knees, reading beautiful verse all the while from his notebook, as the band played - truly an over-the-top homage to the Beat spirit.

The reading of "Howl" itself was energizing for both readers and audience. Richard started us off, chanting the first eighteen extended lines solo, with a few pauses for howls, which the audience joined enthusiastically. Thomas Rain Crowe and I took the next twenty lines, reading them antiphonally, David Hopes and Ted took the next twenty, likewise reading alternating lines, and Sebastian, Jaye, and Gary finished out the first section, Jaye reading several of his passages from the audience. Thomas and I then took the second section, and the Chorus (everyone else) chanted "Moloch" each time Ginsberg used the word in his text (he begins almost every line of this section with that exclamatory denunciation), and a few extra for good measure, and a few howls as well. For the third section, the Chorus took the "I'm with you in Rockland" refrain (virtually every other line), and David read the rest. Once again, the Chorus made sure there were lots of howls thrown in too, and the audience howled along - joining us in the performance. For the "Postscript", the Chorus chanted "holy, holy, holy" as a foundation over which Sebastian, Jaye, and Gary read the rest of Allen's poem. It was an amazing occasion - we were all summoned into the vortex of energy that Allen created five decades ago. Thanks, Mr. Ginsberg, a tip of the hat to you!

After it was all over, Richard said he thought Allen had been beaming a great big smile over us during the performance. If Allen was indeed tuned in, I, too, feel sure he was pleased.

Sebastian sent an email yesterday that summed it up well, I thought, as a "powerful, goofy, exhilarating, energizing and soulful evening." It was all that.

Alice took some photos during the course of the festivities, so I'll try to get a few scanned and posted later.

Special thanks to the Q-Trio for the just-right cool jazz, both behind us as we read and during the breaks, and to Steve Davidowski, who sat in on soprano sax and clarinet, and did some stunning fills. And thanks, of course, to Richard, Thomas, Sebastian, David, Jaye, Gary, and Ted, for another night to remember, a night of the book that was truly for the books, as well.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Still Howling

Something more about next week’s celebration.

As noted below, this fall marks the fiftieth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of his poem Howl in San Francisco, an event that changed the literary landscape of its era. To commemorate and celebrate it, poets and writers across America are joining together for readings of Howl and other works of the Beats, works that spoke with urgency, passion, and engagement enough to transform the perceived limits of poetry in ways that echo through American writing still. Asheville’s celebration of this turning point promises to be as lively as any in the country.

Witnesses to the night of that first reading of “Howl” are now a very small fraternity; fewer than two hundred people, give or take, were present–a crowd large enough, though, to amaze the poets who’d gathered for the reading. No one took photos or made recordings, so we have only the memories of the surviving participants to help us reconstruct it.

Michael McClure, one of the poets who read that night, describes the scene like this:
The Six Gallery was a huge room that had been converted from an automobile repair shop into an art gallery. Someone had knocked together a little dais and was exhibiting sculptures by Fred Martin at the back of it--pieces of orange crates that had been swathed in muslin and dipped in plaster of paris to make splintered, sweeping shapes like pieces of surrealist furniture. A hundred and fifty enthusiastic people had come to hear us. Money was collected and jugs of wine were brought back for the audience … Allen began in a small and intensely lucid voice. At some point Jack Kerouac began shouting "GO" in cadence as Allen read it. In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before– we had gone beyond a point of no return–and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void–to the land without poetry–to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision. . . .

Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases.

Howl was Allen's metamorphosis from quiet, brilliant, burning bohemian scholar trapped by his flames and repressions to epic vocal bard. (from McClure’s Scratching the Beat Surface.)
City Lights Books, run by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published Howl and Other Poems in the fall of 1956. Nearly fifty years later, as we live through another era of political conservatism and new attempts at social repression, it’s important to remember the disdain with which the approved formalist poets of the academies greeted it. John Hollander’s review of the book, published in Partisan Review in the spring of 1957, for example:
It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg . . . to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume. I believe that the title of his long poem "Howl," is meant to be a noun, but I can't help taking it as an imperative. The poem itself is a confession of the poet's faith, done into some 112 paragraph-like lines, in the ravings of a lunatic friend (to whom it is dedicated), and in the irregularities in the lives of those of his friends who populate this disturbed pantheon. . . .
This continues, sponging on one's toleration, for pages and pages. A kind of climax is reached, for me, in a long section of screams about "Moloch!", at a rare point of self-referential lucidity: "Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!"
Fortunately, though, for its success and larger impact, customs officials found that the book was “obscene”, and confiscated part of its second printing in March of 1957. The American Civil Liberties Union contested the seizure, and, after the San Francisco Chronicle devoted some coverage to the controversy, customs officials decided to release the books they were holding. The local police then stepped into the ruckus, arresting Ferlinghetti and bookstore manager Shigeyoshi Murao for publishing and selling “obscene” material. The trail brought national attention, articles in Time and Newsweek, and, that fall, a ruling by Judge Clayton Horn that cleared the book of charges of obscenity and established the precedent of “redeeming social importance.” By the time the trial was over, America knew the Beat Generation, and its writers. Howl has been in print ever since, and has now sold nearly a million copies in its original edition.

The City Lights web site, incidentally, has more history of the original controversy.

The generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Gary Snyder (he was also there that night at the Six) did not mark the end of the Beat experiment, of course, though they remain its best-known exponents. Beginning in the sixties and seventies, another generation of writers followed the Beat path, and soon found themselves known as the “Baby Beats”. In recognition of the continuing relevance of the Beat vision, the Asheville event to honor Howl will also feature the U.S. debut of a new anthology of Baby Beat writing published, not in San Francisco or New York, but in France. Titled Baby Beat Generation: The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance, the book documents the San Francisco scene in the 1970s. Local poet Thomas Rain Crowe, a major member of the Baby Beats during that era, helped the editor develop the anthology; he’ll be on hand as master-of-ceremonies for the evening’s events. Poets Ted Pope, David Hopes, Jaye Bartell, reader Gillian Coats (she insists that she doesn’t write, but she certainly knows some amazing texts), and yours truly will join him – and, as I mentioned here, Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize winner Richard Cambridge from Boston will join us all as featured guest.

Cambridge, a poet and activist who’s deeply engaged with the work of Ginsberg and the Beats, noted in a recent email that he found that the Beats provided a unique commitment to poetry.
Poetry was not something you just wrote, but lived.They had the courage to create a lifestyle in the deepest sense, they lived and dwelled poetically, and they were conscious they were doing this. When Ginsberg was asked about his passion for photography his response was he was recording ‘the sacred drama of our lives.’
One of the features of the evening will be a full reading of “Howl” itself. I understand that the Mighty Art Center Poetry Players are cooking up some special, never-before-heard arrangements, as a musician might say, of the poem for the reading; even if you’ve heard “Howl” before, you haven’t heard it like this.

Music will be supplied by the Q Jazz Trio. Festivities will get under way at 8:00 PM. There’ll be an admission charge of $7 ($5 for members and students). Be there or, you know, be square.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Howl at Fifty

Busy tonight finishing the final (I hope) copy edit of a book of poems that will appear early next year, but I wanted to post a quick note about a major event coming up at the Center. This fall marks the fiftieth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's first reading of his poem "Howl" in San Francisco. It was a reading that electrified its audience and proved to be a tipping point of sorts in our country's cultural history, one that changed the fifties, and helped create the cultural transformation that fully flowered in the sixties and seventies. The evening will feature a fabulous crew of local poets and readers, and, as our very special guest, Boston poet Richard Cambridge. Richard's a long-time activist in addition to being a fine poet - winner of the Allen Ginsberg Prize, in fact. It should be a memorable evening.

More on all this in the weeks between now and then, but I did want to get something up now for those who plan their entertainment early. December 16, 8:00 PM at the Center. This is not-to-miss.

And now back to our regularly scheduled copy-editing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In the Azure ...

More on Jonathan's quote book over at Natures.

Just A Note on the Reading ...

Despite having read Jonathan in the sixties and seventies (the artist Ray Kass, then a student at Chapel Hill, as I was, turned me on to his work, I believe), I hadn't heard him read live till a couple of years ago when he read at a party for the Center board. He was delightful, of course, funny, droll. And he still does humor well, a rare talent. He's been reading from the excellent Jubilant Thicket for the past year, so this time out decided to read instead from a book of quotations he's been assembling. He calls it "If You Can Kill A Snake With It, It's Not Poetry". It featured, as you might expect, words from a diverse range of folks, from Sparky Anderson to Charles Olson and Bucky Fuller. Jeffrey Beam reminds me that
Jonathan's been working on the quote book for years and there are some editions
already available including Quote UnQuote from Ten Speed Press which features the snake quote on the cover. It was published in 1989. And Gnomon Press did an even earlier version.
The Gnomon book was In the Azure Over the Squalor, a slim volume of forty-eight pages, which came out in 1985; it already cited Robert Duncan's proposition that "Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond", and W.C. Field's reply, when asked if he had his life to live over, what would he do differently:"I'd live over a saloon." And two or three hundred others. Last time I checked, it was still somewhat in print, if one looked hard enough.

Tom read from At Dusk Iridescent, of course, including the crown of sonnets, and from Coromandel. I appreciated his comments about what he was working toward in the new work.

More later. I'm reading this afternoon on WPVM as part of their pledge drive, so tune in at 103.5 FM.