At BMC Conference, Performances and Activities Rival Academics
Late September 2014 brought the 6th edition of Re Viewing: Black Mountain College, and my experience, as always, was to be re-invigorated with the vast lessons to be learned from attention to the process and people who inhabited that magical place between 1933 and 1957. This year’s conference had writing as its theme, but the over-all thrust of the events took us well beyond the Olson era at the end of the college’s life, which is usually the focus of BMC literary topics.
The conference is sponsored by the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, whose reception for an art show of Dan Rice’s work is seen above. The BMCMAC is growing fast, with a growing permanent collection of BMC art and a newly announced expansion in downtown Asheville. Their conference has been held past two years at UNC-A’s Reuter Center, a lifelong learning institute which serves as a slightly cramped but otherwise excellent venue. It was well attended by presenters from across the country, with a small international contingent as well. A special feature of the conference is the appearance of individuals directly connected to the college, and this year’s prize was Ted Dreier, Jr, who spent his childhood there as his father Ted Sr. played a major role in college life and the business/finances of BMC. Ted Jr. shared many stories during the Sunday campus tour. It was also a great pleasure to meet the grandson of John Dewey, whose educational philosophy was a foundation of BMC.
The simultaneous events always means selection and rejection (or sneaking out and listening a bit). I started with electing for a writing workshop with Jeff Davis, who helped inspire the cut-up project pictured at the top of this post. Jeff had us participants write two words on a deck of 52 cards he provided. Then we dealt ten out and built poems with the selection using a couple of different procedures. We were emulating the “procedural writing” process used by BMC alumnus Jonathan Williams in writing his poem “Mahler: for Symphony No. 7 in B Minor.” It was fun and Jeff offered enthusiastic appreciation for the ironies and amusing juxtapositions in the poems as we shared them. Jonathan’s press, Jargon Society, is now under the auspices of the BMCMAC.
The next session also drew me to a decidedly non-academic presentation, where Ted Pope offered his unique brand of performance poetry. After a mesmerizing rendition of intricate classical guitar by his son, Ted set the tone for his own work by whipping his arrangement of antlers on a tree stump. This was followed by several energetic rants, including one that gave BMCMAC vice-chairman J. Richard Gruber “a whole new perspective on my home state of Kentucky.” Ted’s anarchic approach brings to life some of the spirit of the college, but also evokes a rich sense of the mountain man, wily and cultured in his own way, and helps define the sense of place that was a thread throughout the conference.
Mary Emma Harris, preeminent BMC researcher, and Vincent Katz, keynote speaker, focused on the growing international recognition of the importance and value of Black Mountain College studies and the profound model of experiential and self-directed education its history represents. The editors of the upcoming Anthology of Black Mountain College Poetry discussed their criteria, reflecting the strong literary importance of Olson and the Black Mountain poets as well as the diverse examples of good writing that permeated the entire span of the college’s existence. Ray Johnson, my default interest at all conferences, is included in the anthology, and his writing is also featured in two newly published books: a new printing of Paper Snake and Not Nothing: Selected Writings, 1954-1994, both from Siglio Press. I honestly did not attend enough hard core lectures to report on the literary ideas at the conference, but instead continued my trend of taking in the active and participatory opportunities. They continued to be very rewarding.
When I walked into “Notes for Time and Place, an Improvisational Drawing Performance,” I not only did not know what to expect, I did not recognize the mechanism sitting on the presenter’s table. I might have, because I had seen a much earlier version. Mercedes Teixido has arranged the construction of a Jeffersonian copy machine, built in consultation with the curators of Monticello, and she uses this marvelous machine in her art endeavors. We were given written instructions (in duplicate copies), to peruse the Black Mountain College titles spread out on the table, and to read a passage aloud when the impulse struck us. The written “rules” stated that if we read a passage, she would make a drawing, and we could have one. As a group, we took a little warming up but eventually all of the audience read something aloud, and just as with Jeff Davis’s “Chance of Magic” workshop, there were fun juxtapositions with and reactions to the readings.
Mercedes herself just listened and worked quietly. She patiently placed twin sheets of paper into her marvelous machine after each drawing, and after some time she spread out the twin line drawings for display. We were invited to take one of a pair, leaving her with a documentary set. It was a truly unique experience, and we all bonded a bit through listening to each other read. It was one of the best acts of artistic community-building I have ever seen, and highly appropriate to this conference about a college where art and life, the interior mind and the artistic act, were irrevocably entertwined.
The culmination of my conference experiences came with Re Weaving, a theatrical reading of letters between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Monika’s work attempts to expand our perspective on theater through unusual spaces, modes, or interactions between actors and audience. This performance drew on the powerful phrases of the original exchanges between Duncan and Levertov, but also enacted the spirit of BMC itself with its fresh approach and innovative techniques. The selection, repetition and rhythm of the words built an amazing dynamic between two very powerful and convincing characters ensconced in a stripped down, yet utterly convincing physical set.
This was another performance offered as an alternative to the academic presentations, this one outside on a patio of the Reuter Center, with the readers/actors under a rustic wooden trellis filled with vines. A few simple props (most magnificently exemplified by a manual typewriter) served to evoke the personal spaces of two people who send their thoughts and feelings across the continent. At times, they react in real time to each other’s missives, at times the rapid exchanges represent an argument: there were no limiting rules in the creation of this dialogue. The power of the characters seems enhanced when they take their inner thoughts outside of the defined theatrical space: when David Novak stalks the character of Robert Duncan up the landscaped slope outside the trellis, it is as if he has left the theatrical space but taken us with him, witness to his silent but fully projected thoughts. Monika, who also stepped away as seen above, did her own magic with space, joining the audience and thrusting her hand up like a precocious schoolgirl at the famous Mr. Duncan, asking him the questions that beleaguered this passionate but probably unconsummated intellectual couple. It was a strong, effective and moving performance, honoring and exploring the range of artistic modes that characterize Black Mountain College.
But wait! Hang in there for the BMC campus and farm tour!
For me, the best was last this year. I finally took the Sunday tour, mainly because David Silver had asked me to read for his farm tour and I was thrilled to contribute, in a way however small, to this wonderful event. Mary Emma Harris started us with a tour of the original resort bought by Black Mountain College in 1941. Midway through her exposition of the dining hall and its central role in college life, Ted Dreier, Jr and his wife arrived, and Ms. Harris (as did David Silver later) graciously conceded the speaking stick to this true alumnus of BMC college life, as faculty kid and later as student. He shared wonderful memories about being allowed to sit at meals with students, about the tragedy of his brother’s accidental death and the memorial construction of the Quiet House, and the communal exchange of the bulletin board in the student-constructed Study Hall.
The property purchased by the college is now divided: Camp Rockmount continues to host hundreds of boys each summer, but the upper reaches, including several original cabins and the farm area, still belong to the family who purchased the land from BMC in 1947. The son-in-law of that family, Leigh Maher, is on the BMCMAC board, and joined us for the tour of his part of property.
David Silver followed up his amazing multimedia event at the Hunt Library with a bang-up tour of the farm. He had several people read relevant passages as we stood in front of the barn and silo. Silver’s numerous presentations have made it clear that the the farm was central to the life and very existence of the college, and that its abandonment in the final years not only left the students hungry enough to eat frog legs, but signaled the coming doom of the end. And yet, as Mary Emma Harris said, the real point is that it lasted as long as it did on such precarious financial ground, and lasted long enough to generate waves of students and ideas that permeate American art culture to this day.