An Interview With Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley has been known as a Black Mountain Poet (along with Charles Olson and Denise Levertov), the Poet Laureate of New York State and a professor, but most importantly, he is a writer with a unique perspective on what’s happening in literature today. I recently interviewed him about community, online writing, spoken word poetry, and finding an audience. Here’s what he has to say:

Jamelah Earle: What kind of role do you think writing and connecting with a community of like-minded artists plays in shaping an artist’s perspective and style? Is it important? Does it have a downside?

Robert Creeley: I think it’s extremely important not just for fact of political action, say, but for all circumstances of a writer’s literal life. Company is what keeps it all together — those “few golden ears” Allen Ginsberg speaks of for whom, he says, “Howl” was written. It matters immensely that someone is listening, can hear, knows where you’re coming from. The general audience, the wider audience as one says, comes years later, so, as in jazz, it’s the people who work with you and give you the necessary feedback who matter. If this can have a downside, it’s only in some sad possibility that what said company is after is not particular to writing itself. For example, a friend used to say of his first wife, “She said she wanted to be a singer but what she really wanted was to be famous …” A company having that so-called goal in mind gets to be a distraction instantly.

JE: Your Day Book of a Virtual Poet uses writing originally produced in an online medium (e-mail) to offer its insights, yet it is published in book form. Though online publishing does not currently have the same validity as traditional print publishing, do you think it will someday? Should it have the same validity?

RC: In that case a small press (Spuyten Duyvil) asked me for something and I thought those accumulated “letters” would be apt. So they proved, and that book has had a remarkable and continuing life. The thing was that the work online depended on Buffalo’s high school, City Honors, keeping the material up on its website, and just now checking, I see it’s long gone. (All that I found was the note written when Allen Ginsberg had just died.) In any case, it’s what simply and cheaply can keep texts and all the uses of them one can think of available, can get and keep work in print. In the 40s, when I was coming in, the absolute limit was letter press and it was awful. No cold press — only ditto, mimeo and such as resource — which one used as did Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka’s “Floating Bear” or as the Golden Goose Press did with its magazine and chapbooks for a time. What a relief to have both distribution AND initial “printing” now be so old time easy! Whatever “validity” constitutes, that has got to mean something in itself.

JE: In terms of poetry, can you think of an example of something the online medium made possible that would not have been possible in print?

RC: For me it’s been the chance to have art specific to something I wrote be there so simply. Here’s an instance:

This was done initially as a catalog for a show of Francesco Clemente’s and so few people got to see it. This way at least some sense of it is easily available. Note too that it’s been ‘up there’ since 1998 although the magazine it’s in has since moved first to Florida and then to the west etc etc. (It began as an online journal out of Damien College in Buffalo.) Anyhow my use of the possibilities is obviously minimal. Think of hypertext — or ‘e-poetry’ — as you’ll find it here:

I.e., look at the range and action! Really, it all goes on and on. Check out the site, for example — it’s like a miracle, to be able to hear and see such a range of material — click, click, click! Had anyone ever told me such would be possible in the 40s, it would have been almost impossible to believe.

JE: In the past couple of years, the weblog (or blog — a frequently-updated journal that can focus on anything from politics to one’s personal life) has become an important force on the internet, and due to its popularity, people who may never have written or shared writing otherwise are publishing their thoughts on the web for the world to see. It seems that everyone has a blog these days. What do you think of this phenomenon? How do you think it changes the notion of what it takes to be a writer?

RC: I much like the quickness of exchange (for which read “publication”) it provides. I truly think the more, the merrier — and let one’s own perceptions and needs make the relevant connections. Pound said years ago, “Damn your taste! I want if possible to sharpen your perceptions after which your taste can take care of itself.” It’s as if someone has finally opened that bleak door of usual discretion and habit, and let in a great diversity of response, proposal, everything. Two blogs I value indeed:

And one could go on and on (eg., to Chris Leydon etc).

JE: Though poetry has always had a small audience, things like spoken word/performance poetry and hiphop are increasing poetry’s reach, especially to the young. Do you see this as a positive thing? What do you think of the difference between spoken word and written poetry?

RC: For me sound — Pound’s “Listen to the sound that it makes” — has always been a crucial factor. That’s why jazz back then in the mid-forties was so useful — it let me hear ways of linking, how ‘serial order’ might be played, what a rhythm could literally accomplish. I wasn’t getting that from the usual discussions of poetry at all. Anyhow I write and read my own poems as sounds and rhythms — and that is a crucial part of their fact. One gets phrasing from all manner of source, people talking in the street, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Jack Kerouac is a terrific instance albeit he hardly took to the stage with any pleasure. But anyhow I write poetry to be spoken, I speak it when I write it — like Bud Powell playing piano.

The only question I’d ever have, then, about performance is whether or no it begins to drift to that earlier point of my friend, “She said she wanted to be a singer…” I have no interest in poetry imagined as a pure art, say, but I don’t want it only so as to see one’s name in lights either. It’s it — and that’s the point. What one can do with it is always something else.

JE: What advice would you give to today’s young writers (the self-published chapbook poets, the novelists who can’t find publishers for the finished book sitting in their top desk drawer, the 18-year-old poet trying to decide if it’s worth it to go to college) who want to reach an audience?

RC: It may well sound too easy to say, but I’ll say it anyhow — find your own “golden ears,” your friends and locating company, and make your way as that interaction. The so-called world at large is just a lot of particular places and you begin where you happen to be. Being a writer is blessed in that one doesn’t have huge canvasses to carry about or have need for ultimate equipment or other musicians so as to make the composite sounds in mind. You can also find simply an endless resource of what’s been done, what’s can be model, in libraries, online, you name it. Google ho!

Anyhow I think of Levi Asher and the initial LitKicks — and many friends, Alex Trocchi, Cid Corman, way back then in the early 50s. Who can wait to be tapped? Onward — and good luck!

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!