Expanding the Canon: Jonathan Creasy Interviewed by Victoria Nebolsin

A new look at the Black Mountain poets.

Black Mountain Poems

When yearning to understand an author’s work, readers often turn to letters. As documents of scriptural affinity, they enact the questions and collaborations that compose the writing process. In the anthology Black Mountain Poems, editor Jonathan Creasy treats the poems he includes in the same way one treats letters: as acts of relating rather than fixed works. The collection of sixteen poets reflects the generative relationships of Black Mountain College, from the central writers—Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov—to a variety of multimedia artists, including Josef Albers, John Cage, and M. C. Richards. To investigate the originality of Creasy’s selection, I corresponded with him via today’s primary form of epistolary exchange—email.  

—Victoria Nebolsin

Victoria Nebolsin You’ve done an extensive amount of research on Black Mountain College before editing this anthology. What compelled you to continue pursuing its poetry?  

Jonathan Creasy I came to Black Mountain initially through poets and poetry. I first saw the name—Black Mountain—as an address at the top of a letter from Charles Olson to Robert Creeley. Their voluminous correspondence is an indispensable document in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. I was interested in letter writing between poets, and looking at that correspondence I learned that I was getting a view toward the end of the extraordinary Black Mountain College experiment. Moving backward, I started to study its founding during the era of the progressive education movement. This archival work started to cohere my multidisciplinary interests around the poetics and pedagogy of Black Mountain. And this is poetics defined quite broadly—as a discipline of things made. That’s what poetry and poetics possess with regard to the Black Mountain experiment: an active way of measuring the relationships between art forms, artists, and human beings.  

VN Both Creeley and Olson abide by the principle that you discover what you have to say through the act of saying it. How has the process of creating this anthology been its own form of discovery? Specifically, how has your understanding of Black Mountain poetry shifted through the act of editing, a form of articulation in itself?  

JC Creeley and Olson are important poets, and they were probably the first Black Mountain poets I read seriously. But there is another artist in the anthology who perhaps best represents my own process: Mary Caroline (M. C.) Richards. Richards came to Black Mountain after a more-or-less conventional path through higher education in literature and criticism. What she found was a place that opened up new worlds. Her writing changed. She became a potter. Her teaching at Black Mountain was—along with Josef Albers’s courses—considered the high standard. She partnered there with David Tudor, and eventually left Black Mountain to join with Tudor, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and others in another intentional community. For years—decades, really—Richards was marginalized in what Olson called “the whole Black Mountain Poet thing” in favor of these mostly male figures.  

That’s all to say that Black Mountain made new discoveries possible for all kinds of artists, and many are only coming to wider recognition long after the reputations of more famous figures have been well established. Editing Black Mountain Poems opened a view on American—and world—writing that enlarged and expanded my interests and understanding.  

Jonathan Creasy Author Photo Final

VN The focus on relationships seems to be the driving force of the anthology. Creeley was deeply influenced by jazz and by his friendship with Dan Rice via jazz; you yourself are a jazz musician. How did your understanding of musical rhythm influence your editing of this anthology?  

JC Before I had literary mentors, friends, and colleagues, I came up as a musician studying with Peter Erskine and Charlie Haden, among others. I continue to stay connected to that artistic world, and jazz and improvised music frame much of my thinking on poetry and things in general. Those years of study and practice have created something of a reliable ear.  

In my own poems, I rely on a rhythmic and musical sense of the words and lines within each piece, and also in the selection and organization of those pieces together. In Black Mountain Poems, that musical sense—I’m sure—determined the choice and ordering. Keeping with music, this was probably intuitive rather than overt. But certainly a large part of the editing process was reading aloud, over and over, in various orders, to determine the right pace, rhythm, and musicality for the anthology.  

VN When going through the works of those not traditionally associated with writing per se, such as Albers and Buckminster Fuller, what were main points of focus to continue a sense of cohesion?  

JC First off, I wanted to include pieces that give some wider sense of what that writer was doing, thinking, etc., in other fields. This is the case with Fuller’s Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization (1962) and with the form of Cage’s mesostics, their indeterminacy, and so on. There was a challenge in finding parts of larger works that would stand on their own, so selecting and organizing in a way that had some internal logic (and music, as we mentioned) was quite important. I suppose one element is that the poems seem to speak to one another over some common space/place.  

VN Cage’s mesostic poem possesses a very telling reflection of his work overall. It spells indeterminacy, yet the irony is that it takes quite a great deal of determination for the poem to be so calculated. I sense this tension in your anthology throughout. How did you grapple with carefully constructing an anthology that is so rooted in the spirit of liberated impulse?  

JC He was seeking “liberation”—as you say—from the idea of the writer, or composer, as ultimate authority. Yet at the same time he stamped his own authority on his work in many ways. I wouldn’t claim to be after indeterminacy in the Cagean sense, but rather I’m interested in trying various combinations, improvisations, the ear—as we’ve been discussing—to find things that I hadn’t initially set out to find. So that the product is very much dependent on the process, if you like.  

Now, making claims like that for an anthology—its selection and editorial process—may seem a stretch, but there is in Black Mountain Poems a deliberate construction that creates a readable anthology and a sense of play and interaction between the poems that comes from some kind of chance. 

VN We’ve spoken a lot about Black Mountain’s treatment of art as process, but perhaps there is a sort of pernicious element in the reification of the present. Could you speak more on this?  

JC I think you’re getting at one of the core contradictions apparent in process-based art forms—and, indeed, education. I tend to think of these as generative contradictions.  

William Carlos Williams was a key influence on most of the poets included in the anthology. Williams saw artistic creation as the supreme work of individual imagination. At the same time, he saw poems as “machines,” as objects made of words, externalized somehow by the act of creation. They were also interested in the apparent improvisatory nature of Williams’s work, especially in the letters, which Williams called “rehearsals” for the poems. All of this, and yet at the same time we have the objective figure of the red wheelbarrow, etc. How to reconcile these ideas?  

One approach can be found in Creeley. He saw poetry as an active means for both living and recording a life. While the poem may reify the abstract, internal world, the continuation of the process beyond that individual piece (the poem in this case), along with the accumulation of those instances over time, show the poet’s continued commitment to the process of artistic creation.  

But, yes, if we are to take seriously the idea of art as process, and—in Black Mountain terms, as pedagogy—there will always be the uncomfortable reality that eventually an art form is externalized and, in some ways, taken away from the creator. It exists, then, somewhere in between intent, object, and action.  

VN At the end of the introduction, you mention that you hope readers will carry the anthology with them, relishing the same comfort from the poems that they gave you. As parting words, can you tell us what you hope your selection will nourish within readers? 

JC First, I hope the anthology—even in its brevity—gives readers a sense of the range of work produced in and around Black Mountain. What binds the poets and poems together is, in some ways, left up to the reader. Beyond that, I think Black Mountain College (and whatever we may call “Black Mountain Poetry”) shows the possibilities of art, community, conversation, and experimentation. Readers may take these ideas—these values—into their own lives, into their own contexts. It may seem strange to claim that there are lessons here, but that’s exactly what they are. Black Mountain was a college, and these poets are teachers. Each of the poets in Black Mountain Poems has her or his own way of seeing the world and discipline of forming. After all, that’s what a poem is—form, of some kind. In the poems’ accumulation over the anthology, readers might discover ways of seeing, hearing, and feeling. Returning to the poems over time, as I have, they might find a new vision.

Victoria Nebolsin is an editorial assistant at Dancing Foxes Press. She is from North Carolina.

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