Kevin Power: Introduction to Where You’re At: Poetics & Visual Art (Redux)

[The news has just reached me of the sudden death of Kevin Power, a friend of mine for over forty years & an independent writer & chronicler of contemporary poetry (particularly postwar/postmodern North American) & art (particularly Latin American & Spanish).  British when we first met, he was for many years the distinguished chair of American Literature at the University of Alicante in Spain & a deputy director of the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.  On September 15, 2011 I posted the following introduction to Where You’re At: Poetics & Visual Art (for Alastair Johnston’s Poltroon Press, 2011), his collection of eight interviews with American poets conducted in the mid-1970s as a mapping of American poetry during the second great awakening of twentieth-century poetry & art. The force of Kevin’s interaction with  & meticulous understanding of American poetry & poets is clear from this introduction & even more so from his role as interlocutor in the interviews themselves.  Since Poems and Poetics wasn’t then co-posted with Jacket2, I’m reposting this now as the most immediate homage I can offer to Kevin for the years of dedication & energy that he privileged me to share.  (J.R.)]

I recall Robert Creeley writing somewhere that ‘truth is what happens,’ a kind of sediment that accumulates from the flow and the consequences of experience: the natural outpouring. Well, I guess it is and here are eight occasions!

These conversations took place in the early 1970s – even if some of them were not published until the ’80s – when I was studying in Buffalo and Berkeley on a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, an impressively obscure entity that gave very generous allowances. I was working on a thesis for the Sorbonne concerning the relationship between poetry and painting in postmodern American poetry and I hoped to be able to talk to some of the poets directly involved with painters or with what was going on in American art.

The bulk of the conversations deal with that aspect (Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Bill Berkson, David Meltzer) and the other three are concerned with aspects of American poetry that particularly appealed to me, Jerry Rothenberg’s ‘deep image’ and his concerns with the primitive and ethnopoetry, Robert Bly’s subjective verse and the myth-related ideas that abound in his poetry, and George Oppen’s lyrical philosophy and his Objectivist poetics.

They were all part of a prolific range of American writing that was opening up new possibilities for poetry and poetics: literally exciting times. It provided me with what proved to be the major stepping stone in my education, in terms of ideas and of defining what Olson termed a ‘stance towards reality’: a way of feeling and being in the world. I can still recall Duncan’s torrential brilliance and Creeley’s careful precision (care, that he saw as the essential definition of love). We can all recall these things. They were immense and generous and their energies spilt over.

I can also recall the warm domesticity of these occasions, the Oppens’ kitchen where I talked to George and Mary as if one voice, a shared life, a tide that had turned but stayed young, a life full of Sartrian engagement but softened and brought to focus through what he called a consuming clarity, through his attention to discrete particulars and at this stage of his life to the oncoming ‘brilliance of shipwreck.’ His work provides sightings that have helped to mark my own way of crossing a life.

These were easy relaxed encounters and particularly meaningful to someone who was still trying to find his way through much of this material. I am thinking, for example, of Bill Berkson, sitting at what I recall as a wooden table in Bolinas and generously willing to talk about others, especially about his associations with a whole range of painters, such as Philip Guston, Joe Brainard, and Larry Rivers, and especially about his collaborations and friendship with Frank O’Hara (one of the anchor stones of my projected thesis); and David Meltzer similarly taking me through a series of reflections and reminiscences of Wallace Berman and George Herms, of Semina and the Assemblage Movement, in the sitting room of his home in the suburbs.

I met Bob Creeley at SUNY Buffalo in 1970 and sat in on some of his classes. He invariably had his office door open in the narrow corridor of the mizzen hut that housed the English Department; walking down this short passageway was an educational experience in itself: Charles Altieri, Leslie Fiedler, Dwight MacDonald, Hollis Frampton, Eric Bentley, Albert Cook, Martin Pops, and Jerome Mazzaro before he moved over to Romance Studies. It was a good place to be. I remember Creeley coming over with Ruthven Todd and Bill Merwin, linked by their stays in Mallorca and their friendship with Carl Gay, the librarian of the Special Poetry Collection. The times were easy and the relationships fluid. We did the interview at his home in, if I recall correctly, a couple of sessions. He talked of Black Mountain College, of Olson, of Pollock, of the way he used bebop as a structuring form for his poetry. Years later, Penelope, Bob, and myself would go to Mallorca together. For Bob it was an intimate occasion, full of meaningful memories, since it was in Mallorca that he had written The Island, published the The Black Mt. Review, and founded the Divers Press that published texts by Duncan, Zukofsky, Douglas Woolf, &c.

We went back and found the press. It was closed but I went back later on another visit and they still had a few copies of the Review and Woolf’s Hypocritic DaysDuring Creeley’s stay we went out to the village, Bañalbufar, where he had lived. A flamboyant English investor and magnate, whose name I can’t recall, had bought a whole chunk of coast that stretched eastwards from the village, but otherwise much was unchanged except there was now an asphalt road that plunged down from the main highway. Almost immediately after Creeley’s departure I was invited back to the village to talk about him and his life in Mallorca. There were only six or eight of us present: a typically modest Creeley occasion. I read some of his poems, talked about the man and his contribution to American literature. Most of the people in the audience had known him, they had come for that simple reason, and they were surprised that the young coñac drinker had left such a mark on his culture. The Mayor had been engaged in a town-hall meeting during my chat but he invited us to take wine and tapas later in the evening in his bar that served as the social hub of the village and he wanted to name a street after Mr Creeley. I recall one question from this small audience from his taxi driver who frequently drove him back from Palma after lengthy sessions in the bars and whose daughter had been a frequent playmate of Bob’s children. He simply wanted to know if he really was that important!

 Duncan had gone there to see him. René Laubiès and Martin Seymour Smith were also on the island. Creeley had gone there from France because it was cheap. Kitaj had a house on the Costa Brava on the mainland opposite.

As a small homage, kindly supported by Sa Nostra, we were able to publish in Catalan not only the poems that he had written whilst living on the island but also the novel The Island that traced the break-up of his first marriage, and a series of lectures by Charles Bernstein, Anselm Hollo, and Creeley himself. Spain, it hardly needs saying, remains blissfully ignorant as to the massive contribution American poetry has made to the last century: wretchedly enclosed in what is frequently a terrifying lost rhetoric of prepotency.

Bob became a friend, as did Jerry Rothenberg, across the same span of years. I met Jerry whilst he was living on an Indian reservation in upstate New York, not too far from Buffalo, passionately engaged in the publication of Alcheringa along with his wife Diane and Dennis Tedlock. He is one of the warmest men I know and his contribution across these years has been immense. Unfortunately, we don’t see each other that much but when we do they are invariably moments of real affection. Jerry introduced me to Ian Tyson with whom he has collaborated on many occasions. I don’t have to say that Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin have been revolutionary and fundamental anthologies of the last part of the 20th century – the extensive footnotes that lead us towards comparisons that most of us have not thought about; his oral readings that once again take up the tradition of a musical beat as an accompaniment to the measures and rhythms of his reading; his endless fascination with the Modernist masters from Gertrude Stein (an interest that links him to Duncan) to a whole list of forgotten names that have allowed him to revive, critically challenge, and reread the American tradition: an effective rephrasing of a continent; Poland/1931, a wondrous saga full of humor built on the lintel stones that lead us into his domestic memories of a Jewish childhood in America and a history of the Diaspora. Autobiography, says Creeley, is life tracing itself, and Jerry’s work has done just that, following the meanders of his life and the pattern of interests that have moved his writing!

 My conversation with Michael McClure took place in his flat — his previous one having been in the same building where Jay de Feo lived. Wesley Tanner and Alastair Johnston had printed some of his small books and Wolf Eyes of his then-wife Joanna at the Arif Press in Berkeley. He had abandoned the Beat scene, the Abstract Expressionist outpourings of The New Book/A Book of Torture, the wild energies of Freewheelin’ Frank, and was deeply engaged with the work of Francis Crick, Stirling Bunnell, Gary Odum, and Ramon Margalef or, to put it another way, in the life of the organism that produced an equally explosive poetry centred on what he called mammal man that would pour out in Hail Thee Who Play and Man of Moderation, or in the Wolf Net essay in the Biopoesis issue of Io.

I had read Robert Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields along with James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break at the end of the ’60s in London and was interested in the relationship between Bly’s subjective image and Rothenberg’s deep image and I was able to talk to him after a reading in Buffalo where he had floated across the stage in a white woven cloak. Bly carries us over into Jacob Boehme’s writings and also, of course, into the protest movement against the American presence in the Vietnam War, particularly through The Teeth Mother Naked at Last that was published by City Lights Books a few months before we talked.

Alastair Johnston has been a friend since these years and I can only thank him for giving me the opportunity to bring these conversations together in a single volume and I thank once again the poets for their words and for the corrections made wherever necessary in the transcriptions.