Great Excavations

Great Excavations

Ted Pelton

Ted Pelton views Robert Creeley’s image/text collaborations in Buffalo, NY.

Can you dig it?

First, let me give up any pose of objectivity. I met Robert Creeley as a student at SUNY-Buffalo in the early 80s. It was my great pleasure to leave and then recently to return to Buffalo, where Creeley still lives. (Leaving was a pleasure largely because it allowed me to see that the advantages of living elsewhere than Buffalo, touted though they are, don’t really amount to much - but all that’s another story.) It is a widely held belief here in Western New York, which I share, that Creeley is the most significant contemporary American poet. Recently, in confirmation of the local bias, Creeley was awarded the Bollingen Prize, Yale’s biannual award for the best recent collection or lifetime achievement in poetry.

Can you dig it?

This is a phrase that I can remember hearing for the first time, meant sincerely, coming from the mouth of Robert Creeley. An ultimate 60s phrase, when nouns were happenings and adjectives were groovy. As a 70s kid, born in the 60s but raised in the age of polyester and irony, I had only heard it in parody form, at second remove in Saturday Night Live skits of doping hippies. But Creeley used it straight, or abbreviated at the ends of sentences - dig? - like one in another context might say, n’est ce pas?

“Can you dig it?” - said straight, strikes me now as the great collaborative question, and with a new travelling exhibition put together at the Castellani Museum in Niagara Falls (just twenty minutes by car or swift current from Buffalo), Robert Creeley is revealed as the great collaborative artist of our time, a category which itself begins to critique and enlarge the accepted dogmas of art and the role of the individual in creating it. The exhibition catalog and CD-ROM excerpts from the poet’s fifty-some collaborations with visual artists over a near half-century of work, augmented by interviews and selections of correspondence. The list of Creeley’s collaborators over this period reads like a survey of late 20th century art: R. B. Kitaj, Jim Dine, Francesco Clemente, Susan Rothenberg, Marisol, Robert Indiana, Donald Sultan, Joe Brainard, Elsa Dorfman, John Altoon, etc. And the question, asked in works by one artist of another, moves each forward. Grab your shovel, sister. Can you find something you can work with? Is there that thing in my work that you’re also thinking about, coming to terms with, inspired by? Here’s what I see in your art, brother - God, I’m glad you’re thinking these things too; I thought I was the only one and I was going crazy.

Before getting to more of the place where the artistic talents converge - collaboration of word and image, image+narrative - take a quick look at Elsa Dorfman’s 1972 photograph of Creeley talking to Fanny Howe (it’s the second image down the page on this link).

This is breakfast after a long night, a morning cigarette in the right hand and the left bringing home a point with gesture. If the subject of their conversation isn’t art, it’s politics - and we’re not talking the present moment’s fallen politics of spin and simulated democracy. Maybe this is too subjective (Dorfman’s notes talk about talking about family - it’s a moment in conversation where all seems to come together - the artistic, the personal, the political). But whatever it is they’re talking about must be interesting: the milk has been forgotten on the table, hasn’t yet been put back in the refrigerator.

Collaboration has taken a number of different forms in Creeley’s work over the decades, from his first pairing in 1953 with French artist René Laubiés while Creeley was living cheaply on the island of Mallorca. Laubiés, himself living in such a tiny flat in Paris that in order to regard his own abstract paintings he had to take them to the landing and look at them through the reverse end of opera glasses, took Creeley to the Fachetti Gallery, where the poet first saw the new American painting - Sam Francis, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline. Says Creeley in an interview conducted by curator Elizabeth Licata:

I was attracted to the fact that this painting was not verbal, that it’s a whole way of apprehending or stating the so-called world without using words as an initiation. However one feels about it is either prior to words or contingent with words. It’s a way of stating what one feels without describing it. Whereas in writing very often words get stuck in a so-called rut of description. You’re talking about the world instead of taking place in the same world.

Soon, Creeley had begun a collaboration with Laubiés, The Immoral Proposition. In his essay in the exhibition catalog, John Yau describes how in a poem from this book, “An Obscene Poem,” Creeley takes cues from the abstract expressionists to make a new writing: because of Creeley’s deliberate suspension of linear time, the absence of circumstances or framing event, and the placement of horizontal and vertical juxtapositions, “An Obscene Poem” is comparable to an abstract painting’s activated surface or field, rather than to a three-dimensional or temporal construct.

Creeley is already at this early stage deeply involved with excavating, with “digging” the other - as poet appropriating theories of the new painting, as collaborator engaging another artist in dialogue across disciplinary lines, and, as in much of Creeley’s work through the next two decades at least, as male relating to and interrogating his own heterosexual desire for, and perceptions of, women. Collaboration/Digging is that activity you do with another, the searching for the place of the other within one’s own mind, body, practice. In “An Obscene Poem,” in Yau’s words, “Creeley’s experience of the immediate, perceivable world is effected by his body’s sexual desire for both a woman and women”:

The girl in the Bikini, my
wife, the lady - she sits on
the rocks, crouched
behind a jagged encumberance.

Calamares, canalones -
the fisherman’s daughter.
At night a dull movement
on the sands

and lightly at low tide
on the rocks
bland, undulant
she returns.

The poem is collage-like, with no one privileged viewing point. “Rather than moralizing about these bodily desires, and the conflicting feelings they stimulate, which would be a way of detaching himself from them, the poet juxtaposes without commentary five distinct perceptions of women (‘girl,’ ‘wife,’ ‘lady,’ ‘fisherman’s daughter,’ and ‘she’).”

The collaborations featured in In Company offer seemingly as many examples of collaborative process as Creeley has had collaborators. With some artists, such as Jim Dine, Creeley provided text that the artist worked from. Nor has every pairing been based upon inherent understanding of what the other artist’s work accomplishes:

I didn’t know what to do when he [Creeley] sent me Mabel. I didn’t have any idea about what to do but I thought it was as good a chance to do what I wanted to do in etching as anything else. And Creeley embraced it - and this is a big point about Bob - because he embraces everything. If it’s you, he embraces it. I remember he said this is perfect and I thought what’s he talking about - what’s perfect about it. It has nothing to do with what I just read.

Yet the collaboration works precisely because of its distance from direct illustration, which is a trap for the writer and artist combining to produce a book. Dine and Creeley both retain their integrity as artists working together, rather than the illustrator describing the text, or vice-versa. Dine’s works respond rather viscerally, in the light of Creeley’s text.

When Creeley has worked from artist’s images in books, his own skills as an interpreter come to the fore, as in Parts, his work with Susan Rothenberg, where the poet’s text remarks the ancient quality and significances of the artist’s symbolic uses of animal parts, motion and stillness.

Nor have all the collaborations been books. John Altoon and Creeley’s About Women mixes the painter’s playful eroticism with the poet’s deeply personal explanation of himself to himself by means of the other (and of the other by means of himself). As in many of the works featured in the catalog, the CD-ROM provides elucidating correspondence from the artists’ working processes, here in the form of Altoon’s comically helpless “every time I draw nothing but what they call pornography comes slippin and slidin out - Jesus!” While About Women was a lithograph accompanied by a poem, other projects have gone further afield from usual textual spaces. Perhaps the most daring are Cletus Johnson’s Theater sculptures, which build short Creeley verses into electrified mini-marquees. And James Surls and Creeley developed together an environmental consciousness to adorn the corner of 7th and Figueroa in Los Angeles through poems and images carved into concrete bollards.

As John Yau points out, no artist has collaborated more with Creeley over the last two decades than Francesco Clemente, and it is here that several aspects of the meaning of collaboration become clear. We see, for instance, that collaboration has not been a sideline for the poet, but rather, that Creeley has consistently built many of his strongest poems out of relationships with visual artists. Creeley’s most recent collection of poems, cited by the Bollingen judges, Life and Death, includes the texts of three collaborations with Clemente. The reader of these poems in Life and Death encounters in the first of the “Inside My Head” series an almost quintessential Creeley poem:

Inside my head a common room,
a common place, a common tune,
a common wealth, a common doom

inside my head. I close my eyes.
The horses run. Vast are the skies,
and blue my passing thoughts’ surprise

inside my head. What is this space
here found to be, what is this place
if only me? Inside my head, whose face?

Published only last year, this is already a representative Creeley poem, articulating anew long-standing themes of common dreams and purposes, again displaying the famous ear that leads us along the familiar fenceposts of childhood rhyme yet refuses to let us settle comfortably in what we think we already know. Yet when we look at Anamorphosis , as the series “Inside My Head” was first known, one of three Creeley collaborations available on the internet through the literary magazine, The 2River View (Donald Sultan and Robert Indiana are featured in other issues), we see that Creeley, working from Clemente’s painting, has described it almost directly.

Who is the “author” of “Inside My Head”? In the text Life and Death, the lines “I close my eyes. / The horses run” suggest the wild fantasies of the individual dreamer, a leap out of the first three lines where “common” appears five times. But the Clemente image is a self-portrait where Clemente’s figure has his eyes closed and horses running above (inside) his head. Who is “I”? Can “I” as well be “common”? Clemente’s painting preceded Creeley’s poem, yet a reader/viewer at different sites of exposure encounters them without chronology, or with exclusive, opposing chronologies: Creeley reading Clemente, Clemente reading Creeley.

Creeley has become an artist who, in late career, simultaneously engages the very old and very new. In his landmark essay, “The Writer and His Community,” Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once discussed how, in an oral tradition, the idea of authorship of a story is foreign - the teller gives up the story in the act of telling, which then becomes the property of whoever wishes to tell it next, altering it as they see fit. Western authorship is predicated on “individualism,” a word, according to Achebe, coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the founding moment of American Romanticism, enmeshed in Western capitalism’s insistence on ownership. Creeley inherits such a tradition via Whitman and Williams. Modernism, too, predicated itself on the great work of the single man: one needs only think of the vast ego-driven projects of Joyce or Pound. Creeley’s notion of “company” complicates, at times even destroys, individual authorship, recalling the pre-capitalist exchange of ideas, stories, versions, all under the rubric of the “common.” Life and Death contains poems with the titles, “Old Poems” and “Old Story,” among others.

At the same time, Creeley’s project shares many of the values of the movement largely regarded to be the most radical poetic avant-garde of our time, the so-called “language writing.” Writes Bob Perelman in The Marginalization of Poetry, one practitioner’s critical account of this movement: “language writing is best understood as a group phenomenon…whose primary tendency is to do away with the reader as a separable category.” Creeley’s collaborations offer various points of entrance: through artist or poet; in gallery, text, or internet; with one or the other exchanging the roles of artist and reader/viewer and offering ways we can do the same. They break down the disciplinary boundaries that define how we regard the arts, that herd us into singular designations as “readers” or “viewers” or “practitioners” of one sort or another. They challenge a similar received dominant notion of literature or art at the end of the 20th century as the work of “figures,” canonical or non-canonical, but always seemingly autonomous personalities displaying their strikingly original visions, even when in so-called “movements.” Because just as Perelman takes pains in his book to dispute language writers as engaged in a “uniform practice,” so too is there no single rubric under which all of Creeley’s collaborators fit, though the labels engaged abound: Black Mountain, Beat, Abstract Expressionist, Pop Art, Minimalist, etc.

Perhaps unlike the language writers, Creeley is not motivated, despite all of his excavations of the other, by a desire to rid his work of the notion of a self. Rather, as John Yau says at the close of his essay, Creeley’s work features a “refusal to escape the empirical self, to return to it again and again.” We do not exist alone, even as creative artists, say these collaborations. The necessary response to our associations with others in the world - with lovers, family, friends, and those engaged as we are in the arts - is reflection of and upon ourselves. There is neither the sentimental melting of self in relationship to the other, nor the utter obliteration of integrated self in a contingent universe of circulating and possessing signs. Nonetheless, no one of us is possible without others, an observation which necessarily must extend to artistic and literary creation. In recognizing the importance of “company” to the degree that he has continually sought it throughout his half-century of creative output in order to extend his work’s demands upon poetry and upon himself, Robert Creeley’s work may well be unparalleled. In Company provides the context for understanding fully the achievement of Life and Death, or any of the other poetic works of Creeley’s long career.