An Interview with Robert Creeley
by Mong-Lan (published originally in
The University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter, Vol. 25, #1, Fall
Mong-Lan: You said once that the value of
the literary enterprise was that it brought to you company of like-minds and not
so much monetary value, and that Charles Olson had felt that Robert Duncan and
you were writing in the same room. Do
you think that you are writing for these people?
For whom do you write?
Best put, I guess, as Stendhal's "happy few" or else Allen
Ginsberg's comment on writing "Howl" to the effect that he wouldn't
try to write a poem (such as was then thought to be one) but would rather write
what he wanted for a few like minds. You
may have noticed how poets generally collect as various "groups" or
company whereas novelists -- while they may share techniques or general effects
-- are seemingly much more singular. I
think of Russell Banks, or Michael Ondaatje, or Paul Auster -- all particularly
related to poetry, be it said, where each has had a far more evident company
than has seemed the case otherwise.
But it would be useful to emphasize
that one is not writing because of that company, not providing a consumer
product (although that may well be poetry's relation to its defining social
body, the "use" of poetry, so to speak) – but is wanting, as
musicians might, a company that can hear them, whether other musicians or those
who can hear them. I think of the
early days of bebop (and my own youth) as active instance.
Paul Blackburn, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan were
certainly a crucial company for me of this kind as were also my elders, Williams
and Zukofsky. They could hear what
I was then doing.
there were three poems that you would want to be remembered for, which would
they be and why?
Again, one is not making artifacts which are solely interesting as
"material" and to pick three, or three hundred, having the proposed
sense you note is literally impossible. What
is it Ginsberg says in "Kaddish" -- "some of my time now given to
nothingness..." In any case, I
would never make a choice that effectually said the poems apart from those three
were less interesting to me. That
would be like choosing the "best" of one's children – an abhorrent
the artist have an obligation to self and/or society?
What is it?
Inevitably any one of us is in the world, whether we realize it or not.
Whatever one writes is fact of that situation.
In that presumption I read "literature" much as a Marxian
critic might, believing it is fact of a socially, politically and physically
determined "world" -- there's no other finally possible.
So it isn't so much that we have the choice of an "obligation,"
we are committed to the world we live in willy-nilly.
What we do about it, or with it, largely defines us as people.
In that fact poets (and artists more generally) are included.
ML: You say, then, that we as a
people all have obligations to the world because we live in it.
You said once that "in the curious service of this art" no one
owns it, that this is a multiple poetry. There
I take it that you mean we have an obligation to the art.
But looking at the word "poet" which from the Greek, poeiein,
means "to create, to make" what
do you think the responsibility of the poet is to the self and to the world
through the making of the poem? (Some
people believe that as artists / poets, we should look to culture and be mindful
that as participants of this culture, we also create it.
Most useful would be to read, just at this point, Robert Duncan's
clarifying essay, "The Self in Postmodern
Poetry" (Fictive Certainties, New
Directions, 1985). I feel in the
cast of your question the sense that one can be apart in some way from what one
otherwise is, that there is the possibility of objectifying one's self -- as
though one could so see the "self" as a reflected image in a mirror.
In fact, it's the reflexive, or possessive, presumption of this fact of
person, call it, that bothers me -- that we can so think of
"ourselves," that we can call that "self" to an imagined
order, "oblige" it or improve it, give it tasks or purposes.
I see that "oblige" has root in the meaning of "bind"
and "near" -- just as "religion" has "binding" as
root -- and "negligence," its opposite (Skeat says). In any case, for me the "self" is the given of
person in the world, without relief -- beyond the intent or control of
rationality. That's where poetry
speaks most complexly and commonly of what "we" are.
Again Duncan is very useful: "Responsibility is the ability to
respond." We are
"culture," we can't choose it.
you have such a unique style, what do you think makes a good poem?
Action, I guess -- fact of movement, energy disposed, "language most
fully charged with meaning," as Pound put it -- like Olson's sense of a
poem as "a high energy construct."
(These are not metaphors incidentally.)
Possibly the best answer would be that given a friend years ago when she
had asked Philip Guston how he could tell when a
painting (his own) was finished? He
said simply, when I can't do anything more to it -- when what one does will
begin to vitiate the activity, will displace the coherence and integrity
recognized. Much of the dilemma of
working to a formula is that that preemptive containment can argue that
"more is needed," when in fact it may not be -- or may only be a
factor of the general form, not the specific instance the poem is.
It's a bit like prefab houses as against what one might build for
particular persons and their needs.
are the sources of humor in your poetry?
Displacement, self-reflection, recognition of commonness.
There's no simple resource -- but insofar as "the poet thinks with
his poem," as Williams put it, humor will be a factor.
Humor has the same intimacy as poetry, is local in the same way (as Rene
Thom observed). Both rely entirely
on humanness per se for their existence.
do you mean by “displacement?” Do
you mean actual displacement? For instance, I was born in Vietnam and grew up in
America. If so, how is it related
I was thinking that humor disarms us, makes us "helpless" (with
laughter, for instance). Somehow it
provokes recognition of a world we cannot finally control or surround with our
thought. For example, I am moved
that "happen" and "happiness" have the same root.
So I was thinking of "displacement" as that which takes us out
of our determined patterns of control, makes us conscious of vulnerabilities,
confusions, errors ("bloopers"), etc.
Of course, there is legitimately the person who says, that wasn't funny!
Even more to the point -- that was not supposed to be funny.
Perhaps humor is the perception (or comes from it) that we are without
defence, once we recognize we are literally alive.
"Born to die," that's a good joke?
is very rare for a poet to achieve the voice through line breaks, which you have
done remarkably well (i.e., the enjambed syncopated stops, etc.)
How did you stumble upon this technique of creating your voice through
In the 1940s the prevailing imagination of poetry was so dominated by
critical theory, especially that of the New Critics, that one was left with
little room, either to think of poetry as a various and yet particular
possibility of ways of speaking, or to be one with others commonly, in a given
place, time, company. Just to be
free of "The Rage for Order" or "The Well Wrought Urn" and
the rationalizing thought back of them was
instantly relieving. So I listened
to a lot of jazz, having friends who were active musicians. Otherwise I hung out with mathematicians, art history majors,
anyone who proposed the world in less cramped and presumptive manner.
Some of the aforesaid critics I did like -- William Empson, for example,
or Kenneth Burke. But the patness
of the Understanding Poetry proposal was really unpleasant -- it had no room (or
"understanding") at all for my own heroes, W.C. Williams most
In jazz I found much more instruction
as to how to manage rhythm, how to make a line, call it, and keep an active
pattern --"how to dance
sitting down," in Charles Olson's phrase.
Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach and
many others before them and after were really my source and instruction. There is so much emphasis put upon what poems "are
saying." Yet it is only in the
way poems are "saying" anything that I find them interesting.
Otherwise love's love, eggs eggs, water wet.
"Listen to the sound that it makes," Pound emphasized -- so I
do you reconcile the life lived intensely and the life lived as a person who has
Insofar as circumstances permit -- and that's a large qualification I
know -- try not to live two lives, so to speak.
Best if one can have some sense of coherence, integration, wholeness --
and it's here, I'd guess, one might well quote the old chestnut from the great
poet indeed: "This above all, to thine own self be true..."
One recognizes they didn't know what "self" was anymore than we
do! Duncan loved it when I told him
that, on my leaving home, my mother had given me what I considered generous and
reassuring advice: "Just be yourself..."
What a thing, Duncan said, to tell an 18 year old!
As if he or she could know what that "yourself" was.
ML: For these times as opposed to
the days when you graduated from New Mexico, what advice would you give a
graduating student from an MFA program: to
stay in academia teaching or to go find a job elsewhere in the world?
I never intended to teach at all, and, remember, I dropped out of college
(Harvard) the last half of my senior year there.
I certainly had no "career" in mind at all, other than to
survive (if I might be so permitted) and to write.
As with Allen Ginsberg, "a few golden ears" was the sum of my
presumed audience. I've taught
every grade but the sixth, a fact which really gives me pride-- because
"academia" is not a term which applies to the usual first grade
teacher, nor to the second, third, fourth or fifth, nor seventh, eighth, ninth,
tenth, eleventh or twelfth grade teacher -- at all.
In short, teaching is an art in itself, and I am pleased to have the
small association I have had with it professionally.
I have not been a teacher of workshops at the university here (where I've
now been employed since 1966), rather of literature courses, however ineptly.
"Oh fathers and teachers," Whitman writes.
I can dig it, like they say. But
it could have been plumbing, or the chickens I started with, or something just
as unexpected as "teaching" then was.
Olson once suggested I might teach the absent Biology course at Black
Mountain. When I said it was the one science course I'd never taken
either in college or in highschool, he said, "Good! You can learn something too."
Anyhow, it's not an easy time at all
to be hitting the street. To come
in with a heavy baggage of intentions would make it all even more brutal. One's life is the point -- and the possibility, one hopes,
that "What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee..." Living
with people, keeping it together, I don't think it's ever more or less than
you teach a poetry workshop if you were offered the job?
Why or why not?
I have certainly taught poetry workshops over the years, both in summer
programs or as activities supported by art centers -- and, very occasionally, in
college or university patterns. I
have also had modest relation with particular writing programs -- as, some years
ago, the one at San Francisco State. It
was in that situation I met Susan Griffin and Linda Gregg, for example, among
others. That people such as those
two show up in workshops argues well for their use indeed. I know it was a time
of crisis for Susan Griffin and the workshop gave her chance to take the
potential of her writing seriously, and that was a remarkable event for all
But there is another side of
workshops she and I both would well remember -- specifically the fellow who
wanted to dominate us all, and who trashed her when she brought in some poems of
Denise Levertov's for our interest. That
person is ubiquitous in any teaching situation, and no doubt the skilled teacher
can squelch him or her as required.
Nonetheless there seems a tacitly
competitive aura to writing workshops which I abhor.
No one wants an argument in such situation -- no one wants to be dealing
with who wins, or who loses. So the
often horrid practice of "critiquing" one another's writing, with the
teacher kibitzing all too significantly, is not one I can ever accept or enjoy.
One needs to be open in that circumstance, permitted vulnerability and
enthusiasm, allowed mistakes and insecurity.
At times the situation feels like a coffee klatch at work on some
excluded neighbor -- bleak, humorless, righteous and self-approving.
Who needs it?
Last evening I went to visit with a
group at a local college here in Buffalo. They
asked me questions and I rambled on about senses of writing and the like.
They meet regularly in their own interest, read their poems to one
another, refer to outsiders or elders as myself as circumstances permit.
There are no grades, no rankings, no authority to be applied to more than
their communal group of necessity must constitute. I'd think theirs to be the most useful situation -- one in
which the group itself exercises the primary authority and determination of its
own circumstance and needs.
Finally, one knows that in usual
academic settings the writing program is a poor relation at best.
No degree in writing per se (whether Ph.D. or MFA) is thought to be
equivalent to the usual degree, accomplished through usual academic application,
research and the completion of a dissertation.
In applying for jobs in academia, the same holds true.
Degrees obtained in writing programs are considered less authoritative
and offer a far smaller range of employment.
The same situation is found as one
tries to publish. Does it help to
have a degree in writing? Does the
publisher consider as more interesting those with such credentials?
I think not -- just that no publisher I've ever asked or otherwise known
has seemed to think so. It doesn't
hurt but it also doesn't help.
Finally to answer your question -- I
would not choose to work in such situation if other possibilities for livelihood
existed. For short periods,
workshops have been occasionally a great pleasure -- as the company recently at
the Vermont Studio Center, but it's to the point that we had no one determined
to win among us, just a very good-natured fact of various people.
As a teacher, I wonder about
work, about my own ability to see clearly what it proposes, why it is the way it
is, what needs or strengths it defines. Perhaps
I echo my own youth when no workshop ever was of use to me. I felt gypped and cheapened by the whole experience --
despite my several teachers were persons of good faith and accomplishment.
We were simply in the wrong relationship.
At SUNY Buffalo we have what's called
the Poetics Program, a group which includes many writers (Susan Howe and Charles
Bernstein among them) but which
depends for its authority upon an active intellectual training and production,
an academically determined one, requiring substantial research abilities as well as those relating to critical
methodology and reference. It is in
the conceptualizing of literature as a social practice and content that we find
our active place and condition among our colleagues in the general Department of
English. So I feel we serve both
writers and those academically committed, confusing neither, yet insisting upon
their common ground. Peter Gizzi's
edition of Jack Spicer's Lectures
would be a good instance of the consequent production.
Juliana Spahr and Jena Osman's co-founding and editing of Chain
would be another. This is equally
the place of my own commitment and pleasure.