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.
Looking forward to attending the BMC conference at UNC-A’s Reuter Center Sept. 26-28. Last year I did a silkscreen of an ancient motif – this year I am responding to the writing theme of this year’s event with a give-away piece of hand-laid paper incorporating randomized sentences cut from a variety of sources.
I cut hundreds of sentences from some old paperback books lining my letterpress shop – the criteria being variety and nothing post-dating the lifetime of the college. These were spread out and “shuffled” thoroughly, then dropped into the vat of pulp a few at the time as I formed the sheets. Minor lifting and adjusting did not interfere with the groupings and each sheet has fun juxtapositions with occasional strong ironies. I made 52 to take to the conference.
The use of chance and spontaneous order is characteristic of some of the best-known BMC artists. I look forward to learning more about its use by Jonathan Williams in a writing workshop conducted by Jeff Davis, where he
“will replicate in brief form the procedure Jonathan Williams developed when he wrote the section in in his long poem Mahler for Symphony No. 7 in B Minor. After steeping himself in Mahler’s work, he availed himself of an “hallucinatory deck” of cards, and wrote on those cards the 110 words that were the “private and most meaningful words of [his]poetic vocabulary,” and then, using different rules for each of the movements, he wrote the amazing poem!
The cards I made have already helped me engender a long list of favorite phrases and it will be fun to distribute them to the wonderful folks that attend these conferences. Long live the spirit of BMC!
Jeffery Beam’s rich and varied literary contributions have been recognized here before, but his recent reading at the UNC Botanical garden was a found treasure. He was surrounded by friends and presented not only botanical poems from his latest book, Gospel Earth , but sang, remininsced, and read favorite passages from the poets who have influenced him. Jeffery’s wonderful voice, his energy, and his exuberant love for natural beauty made his reading a meditation and a spiritual sharing.
Gospel Earth is described on the Regulator Bookstore site as a “a collection of monostitches, micropoems, American sentences, small stones, small poem sequences, & minimalist poetry.” It begins with a plentitude of short quotes, almost all gemstones of thought from many different sources. Just as he shared his influences in the reading, his book says up front: here I stand, the earth my image, love my fuel, all the beauty I have been given is part of me. Those are my words and show Jeffery’s effect on one: spiritual and mindful.
Gospel Earth moves from the quotes to extremely short responses to images, many one line or even two or three words. The literary devices are almost invisible behind the strong zen and monastic distillations of pure meaning. The natural images shine for themselves in Jeffery’s deft and delicate frames. The Botanical Garden says Gospel Earth is
“a big book of little poems, [it] has already received acclaim for its transcendent, lush beauty; its minimal sacrament; and its simplicity and physicality. Described by the poet as a work intended to “invigorate the startling propulsion of haiku’s accessible simplicity and minimalism, while creating a more active canvas.”
The book does contain larger pieces, including a prose meditation on birding dedicated to Jonathan Williams (more about him below). One of my favorite pieces is a poem with notes that constitute an essay called “The Green Man’s Man.” The poem finds Jeffery immersed in Nature but always open to the philosophical notes in her song: ” I open Nature’s book/finding:/The more I know/The less I know.” The notes were written specifically for a different Botanical Garden event, and delve into the mythological image of the Green man. Jeffery tells us
The Green Man is not separate from us, he is our source, emphasizing & celebrating the positive creative laws of Nature, the native intelligence that shepherds and protects this world, and the ecological rightness that guides us.
Jeffery continues to enact and support the spirit of Black Mountain College in many ways and I hope to learn more of his scholarship regarding Jonathan Williams. He has presented numerous times about him, and is working on a bibliography. He has also shared manuscripts and links that make it clear he is a leading authority on the man’s life and significance.
Parts of this book also existed in online and pamphlet versions:
Peter Eichenberger died Thanksgiving morning and proved well his enduring unique qualities with the breadth and nature of his mourning. Just one of those qualities was: if you were ready for it, Peter was down with it, and so he made many many friends. They have mourned the loss of his excellent company and all he might have said, but celebrated a life lived full speed and damn the torpedoes, smelling the roses and leaving no stone unturned along the way. Teasing and sarcasm was our way, as with many, and he would hate those cliches, but he was a man worthy hyberbole, since his life consisted of it.
I feel very lucky to have explored Cameron Park’s myriad of alleyways on bike with him this summer, and glad that I shared so many drinks at Sad’s with him, and I hate like the dickens I never got him together with my dad, whose stories of Depression downtown Raleigh and Southern Railroad energized him any time I touched on them. He could ably discurse on innumerable subjects, and he taught me much. He reminded me that Willie York had ditched and piped Pigeon House Branch to build the first shopping center in the Southeast when I was writing about that troubled creek, and he explained to me that the “geodesic” dome I liked so much at the Fairgrounds was actually made of hexagons (instead of pentagrams like Bucky’s). He could write in the Downtowner of dog history and at Metro of Raleigh history and in the Indy of technological history, but I loved to hear him talk of cultural history and the local media history he had lived with all these years. He was a writer, Raleigh’s own Gonzo, but he was rooted in the Earth by what he could do with his hands, which was just about anything if he wanted to.
What he wanted was for the world to be right and what he knew was that the world is very very screwed up. He was right, and when those dark spectres bothered him he would share about the Mayan prophecies or the bombed levees or some other conspiratorial tale that bothered some but seemed clearly to be metaphors: the world is very very screwed up.
Peter also gathered the best kind of vibes and lived in the harmony of many positive energies. Thus was he beloved and is honored by so many in the words that have flowed since his passing. He leaves behind many words of his own, but scattered over the town of Raleigh (and the world wide web) like raucous crows, singing a noisy chant of art, art for life, art against the controlling state and the corporate fascists, art for love. Peter love Peter.
Here are some of the many links for the outpouring online for Peter and links for his own writing:
illustration by Christine Noad
Passejada Menerbesa / Wild Roman Byways
Hearing Miquèl Decòr read his poetry in Occitan, the ancient French language of the troubadours, was an amazing experience. Listening to him introduce each poem in French, than having his translator Jeannette Rogers say all of it in English, made it an amazing language experience. I went overboard at his performance in Chapel Hill and sight read my copy of Wild Roman Byways, his book, as he read his work. I continually glanced over at the French and English (a wonderful chapbook for a linguist) and nearly made myself sick. It was worth it, but when I heard him read at Meredith College I simply listened and it was just as wonderful. What an energy this man has, this retired schoolteacher from the countryside of southern France who has become a voice in his nation for the language of Oc. Wild Roman Byways describes the physical mileu of ancient Roman sites within a day’s journey of the author’s home. As he evokes the grass-bearded stone ruins and the rough bridges and grottos, he finds the imagist and musical gems in these landscapes and molds them into song. Miquèl does sing, and play, in fact has performed literally for the crown heads of Europe, and his presentation of poetry was a true performance.
Jeannette was so brave and effective as she matched up to her author with her English translations. She read them aloud beautifully and her translations read strongly – having no French, I can’t judge the actual translating, but the English poems are lovely, with such a grip on the natural world.
Below is a sample of this three language experience – Oc, French ,English.
Ma votz se vòl tamborn e resson de dalhaires,
E se pèrd dins los aires…
Ma voix se veut tambour et ècho de faucheurs,
et elle se perd, dans les airs…
My voice seems to throb and to echo with the sound
of reapers, then, becomes lost in the wind…
When the reading shifted away from Roman Byways to the lyrical love poetry more typical of Decòr’s work, the tone changed. Here he was even more demonstrative, and the intriguing qualities of the Occitan were more prominent. The poems were very masculine (think imagist Robert Bly) and the linguistic tones were somewhat Germanic, sometimes almost guttural. This was amazing to hear from the mouth of a Frenchman, and was one of many things about the whole experience that enlarged my perspective on the French character. Miguèl is immersed in the southern French countryside, and spoke passionately at the Chapel Hill reading about the history of Occitan in France and his own relationship to Paris and traditional French national culture. His parents forbade him to speak Oc but he learned it anyway from his godfather and has become one of its champions. There are Oc immersion schools in southern France, and Miguèl makes media appearances and participates on a national level with the preservation of the language.
Kudos to Jeannette for bringing this fascinating man to Raleigh and facilitating his poetry presentations – as well as translating and reading the poems! We will be hearing more of Jeannette as she continues her literary journey through the France of the troubadours.
To order a copy of Miguèl’s book, contact her: