Martha King, 1961
I fell in love with the story of Black Mountain College and I have done posts many of the people associated with the college such as Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Donald Alter, Sylvia Ashby, James Bishop, John Cage, Willem de Kooning (featured in 3 posts), Ted Dreier, Ted Dreier Jr., Robert Duncan, Jorge Fick, Walter Gropius, Heinrich Jalowetz, Pete Jennerjahn, Wassily Kandinsky, Karen Karnes, Martha King, Irwin Kremen, Charles Olson, Charles Perrow, Robert Rauschenber, M.C.Richards, Dorothea Rockburne, Xanti Schawinsky, Claude Stoller, Bill Treichler, Susan Weil, David Weinrib, and Vera B. Williams.
Fully Awake – PREVIEW
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
WHAT IS YOUR ADOPTION EXPERIENCE?
My younger daughter adopted two children, each arranged before birth, each put into her arms within a few days of birth—the first, 4 years ago in Massachusetts, and the second, 2 years ago in Louisiana. Both adoptions are ‘semi open’—the new style. My daughter & her husband submitted the whole thing each time: a dear birth mother letter, the album picture story of their life, all to induce a pregnant woman intent on surrendering her child to choose them. They met the mothers and some family members and keep in touch through an agency in one case and a lawyer in the other—sending a letter or two with photographs a year. (The birthparents are told there’s a letter and can pick it up or not.) Both daughters keep as a middle name the name given to them by their birthmother. A token they will be told about… Thus Evelyn Monique and Agnes Grace. Their first names are family too: Evelyn is a favorite great aunt of my son-in-law; Agnes is my grandmother, who meant a great deal to me in childhood.
In truth this separation is another fiction. The families could find my daughter and her husband in a flash…via address, last name, employer, etc. At least for now. But they don’t. Everyone obeys the rules.
The cost of modern American semi-open domestic adoption is not all that high in money terms. There’s lots of false information circulating on this. Also stories, totally outdated most of them, about the insecurity of domestic adoptions. That a court may demand return of a child to the biological family, for example. As a life-long conspiracy theorist, unconscious conspiracy, that foulest of all, being paramount, I speculate reasons may have to do with deep distrust of many white Americans for people with African heritage—plus class issues, of course, plus fear of exposure, all of which are ameliorated when a baby comes from a culture far away. Not even the prospect of being present at the baby’s birth, of bringing that baby home within a very few days, is enough to overcome a widespread preference for adoptions from Asia or the Caucuses by those with the resources to effect them.
The actual cost of the “domestic semi-open” is invasion—and the presence of a birthparent in the adoptive family’s collective imagination. Like all adoptions, this parenthood doesn’t start under the covers, in the back of a dark van, in a hot private midnight no one else knows. Grief enough. As in foreign adoptions, institutional grey-blue florescent light bathes every move. Domestic adoptions go still deeper. Not only the “Dear birthmother” letter and the photo album depicting the ideal childhood promised to the baby, but also social worker home studies, employment and medical histories, financial reviews, Homeland Security clearance, pre-adoption counseling, and enough certified paperwork for a Fortune 500 merger, all provided for uncounted strangers to review, copy, file and, oh yes, lose and then demand replacement of. Topped off by a required live performance before the birth: the face to face meeting of prospective parents with pregnant birthmother along with agency rep and whomever else birthmother has requested to be present.
Remember, parents, this is not an interview. We social workers have done all that. This is a meeting, a chance for you all to know each other a little more. (Why?) This is not the time to press for facts. (Why not?) The sibling question for example, is not to be touched. (Why?) In part, I think, this performance is structured to protect birthmother’s self esteem. She is not to feel incompetent, stupid, crazy or sick—though she may be some, all, or none. But she is also not acknowledged to be desperate or even in trouble. This decision is to be seen by all involved as an act of altruism. For the visit, birthmother is pulling on a face of respectability so the adopters will think well of her. To protect herself from any hint of scorn she’ll make coffee and serve something sweet, tell lies about herself and her circumstances, tell her visitors she is sure she has made a wonderful choice. This is the first step in a process that will continue during her free counseling sessions in the weeks following the surrender. Her story will be processed, justified, dewormed and buried in clean wrappings. In my family there are now two such women. I think about them. So does my daughter. My son-in-law operates on a stricter sense of denial, so if he does too, the fact isn’t shared with me. But we all agree that someday there may be contact with one of these women and their birth child, if their daughter, my granddaughter wants it.
The aim of all this is to make a good story about of two bad ones…and surely this is more humane than any adoption process used in the past. I now have four grandchildren, and I could not imagine my life or my family without any one of them.
(Martha’s daughters Hetty and Mallory, and granddaughters Satrianna, Aggie and Evie)
(Martha and her husband artist-poet Basil King)
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
I haven’t written about this explicitly…but the adoption has certainly had an impact on my world view, on my emotions, on my “family” feelings, on what I’ve observed of the dance of nature and nurture (which sounds so academic, but believe me it’s not!). Essay to come perhaps? Impact is here and working. I never suspected the impact would be this profound, that’s for sure. Initially, adoption only seemed to offer relief of the pain of childlessness…after too many miscarriages.
I have wrestled all my writing life with the shifts between memory and inventions, family (and social) lies and conspiracies, ethical demands of loyalty and ethical demands of art, the impossibility of telling a “whole” story, of writing itself as a need to be seen and yet to hide. My family circumstances and the choices my daughter made have confirmed my instinct that these are worthy issues to contend with…and, perversely, conversely, delightfully, they have helped me decide to leave off memoir and consider poetry again. With a willful dissolution of boundaries at my disposal. With an eye to humor always lurking in the quagmire underneath the logical bridge. With a huge hello to Satrianna, Kirin, Evelyn, and Aggie!
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
“Impact is here and (still) working.”
ABOUT THE POET:
Martha King was born in Virginia in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955 and married Basil King in 1958. She began writing in the late 1960s, after the birth of their two daughters, Mallory and Hetty.
Living in Brooklyn since 1968, King produced 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzlein the late 1980s (sent free to interested readers). She has worked as an editor in mainstream book publishing, for Poets & Writers, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and currently for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Her collections of short stories include North & South (2007), Separate Parts (2002), andLittle Tales of Family and War (1999). Other stories have been anthologized in Fiction from the Rail and The Wreckage of Reason. A collection of her poetry, Imperfect Fit, was published in 2004. Currently, King is at work on a memoir, Outside Inside, chapters of which have appeared in Jacket #40, Bombay Gin, Blaze Vox and New York Stories.
The Longest Ride Official Trailer #1 (2015) – Britt Robertson Movie HD
My first post in this series was on the composer John Cage and my second post was on Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg who were good friend of Cage. The third post in this series was on Jorge Fick. Earlier we noted that Fick was a student at Black Mountain College and an artist that lived in New York and he lent a suit to the famous poet Dylan Thomas and Thomas died in that suit.
The fourth post in this series is on the artist Xanti Schawinsky and he had a great influence on John Cage who later taught at Black Mountain College. Schawinsky taught at Black Mountain College from 1936-1938 and Cage right after World War II. In the fifth post I discuss David Weinrib and his wife Karen Karnes who were good friends with John Cage and they all lived in the same community. In the 6th post I focus on Vera B. William and she attended Black Mountain College where she met her first husband Paul and they later co-founded the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Vera served as a teacher for the community from 1953-70. John Cage and several others from Black Mountain College also lived in the Community with them during the 1950’s. In the 7th post I look at the life and work of M.C.Richards who also was part of the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Black Mountain College.
In the 8th post I look at book the life of Anni Albers who is perhaps the best known textile artist of the 20th century and at Paul Klee who was one of her teachers at Bauhaus. In the 9th post the experience of Bill Treichler in the years of 1947-1949 is examined at Black Mountain College. In 1988, Martha and Bill started The Crooked Lake Review, a local history journal and Bill passed away in 2008 at age 84.
In the 10th post I look at the art of Irwin Kremen who studied at Black Mountain College in 1946-47 and there Kremen spent his time focused on writing and the literature classes given by the poet M. C. Richards. In the 11th post I discuss the fact that Josef Albers led the procession of dozens of Bauhaus faculty and students to Black Mountain.
In the 12th post I feature Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) who was featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE and the film showed Kandinsky teaching at BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE which was not true according to my research. Evidently he was invited but he had to decline because of his busy schedule but many of his associates at BRAUHAUS did teach there. In the 13th post I look at the writings of the communist Charles Perrow.
Willem de Kooning was such a major figure in the art world and because of that I have dedicated the 14th, 15th and 16th posts in this series on him. Paul McCartney got interested in art through his friendship with Willem because Linda’s father had him as a client. Willem was a part of New York School of Abstract expressionism or Action painting, others included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart.
In the 17th post I look at the founder Ted Dreier and his strength as a fundraiser that make the dream of Black Mountain College possible. In the 18th post I look at the life of the famous San Francisco poet Robert Duncan who was both a student at Black Mountain College in 1933 and a professor in 1956. In the 19th post I look at the composer Heinrich Jalowetz who starting teaching at Black Mountain College in 1938 and he was one of Arnold Schoenberg‘s seven ‘Dead Friends’ (the others being Berg, Webern, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos). In the 20th post I look at the amazing life of Walter Gropius, educator, architect and founder of the Bauhaus.
In the 21st post I look at the life of the playwright Sylvia Ashby, and in the 22nd post I look at the work of the poet Charles Olson who in 1951, Olson became a visiting professor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, working and studying here beside artists such as John Cage and Robert Creeley.
In the 23rd post is about the popular artist James Bishop who attended Black Mountain College towards the end of its existence. In the 24th post I look at the Poet-Writer Martha King.
Three Months in 1955:
A Memoir of Black Mountain College
If I had not been. If I had not been always in transition, moving from New York City winters to Virginia summers, always the new girl, the one no one knows, the one with the Southern accent, the one with the Yankee accent, the rich or the not-rich one, the one from the house with all those books, from East 86th Street on the Upper East Side, or the commuter suburbs of Chappaqua, Pleasantville, and Mt. Kisco, or the Hudson River town of Ossining where the men, mostly Italians or fled-from-the-farms old Anglos, didn’t take the train but worked at the penitentiary or in factories that lined the riverfront… .
Martha King, 1961
If I had not been the faculty brat, in and out of university classes and campus buildings all over Chapel Hill from the time I was fourteen. If I had not had such comfort with poverty, which gave me a feeling of calm and normalcy. All country farmhouses had splintery floors, smelled of kerosene heaters, needed paint and roof repairs. Some had outhouses, with unpainted silver-smooth glory holes. Some had tin lined kitchen sinks with a pump at the side.
If I had not been any of those things I would still have been just as desperate to leave home the summer I was eighteen. And I would have found a bohemia somewhere, a gang of people at odds, not like me but against other things, anywhere, anyone. All us runaway kids know this. I would have met other people somewhere else, but would they have been as permanent in my life as the Black Mountain people I was to meet? I was passing through my days, without deep attachment. I felt everything could be exchanged. Everything almost was.
I almost didn’t spend the three summer months when I was eighteen at Black Mountain College. My time there was bracketed by a legal rule called in loco parentis. It accidentally steered me there, and just as powerfully, but with deliberate intention on my father’s part, was invoked to keep me from returning after that summer.
I meant to spend the summer of 1955 in Cherokee, in the Maggie Valley of North Carolina, in the mountains way west from Black Mountain. I had been hired as a dancer for “Unto These Hills” — a drama about the Cherokee expulsion and the survival of a remnant band. This shameful story of U.S. colonialism had been tarted up as a public entertainment by a socialist playwright from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; it was presented over the summer months in an outdoor theater near the reservation, to the great improvement of the local economy. Still is, it seems.
I don’t know about today, but in 1955 no Cherokees performed in it. The cast was made up of white drama students from Chapel Hill — by Playmakers, and I was one — and by New York actors who competed for a summer of full employment, with communal benefits. The company became “Indians” with the use of full body makeup for the first act, transformed themselves into white settlers for a middle act, and daubed the body paint on again for the tearful finale. My sister Charlotte had preceded me in this job two years earlier, and my parents, brother, and I had visited her there, so I knew just what to expect, down to the detergent wash-down twice a night to accomplish the racial change-overs. The Hills compound, on the grounds of a Cherokee boarding school, was provided with dining hall, dormitories, classrooms, and off-time theater work, squeezed out of the six-shows-a-week, dark on Sunday drill.
I had been hired. I had the job. I was in the drama department office to sign my contract when someone noticed my birth date. I’d been around the Playmakers for years, and people had forgotten I wasn’t a college student. Or so they said.
Sudden awkward silence.
There had been a recent “problem.” A father was suing the department for failing to protect his twenty-year-old daughter from a romance with an older actor. In loco parentis universities were to be, for white girls under the age of twenty-one in the 1950s South. The assistant director lied nervously. “Gee, Martha, we thought you were a lot older. We’re really sorry.” Which might have been true. Not his difficulty. Mine. It was March. My summer escape route was obliterated.
Black Mountain College dining hall with Lake Eden and Basil King, 1961
Was this before or after I bought a copy of the Black Mountain Review at the Bullshead Bookshop in the basement of the university library? It was the issue with a portfolio of Franz Kline’s black and white paintings, and a two-page essay by Robert Creeley in a language and tone I had never encountered in my life. What was this art? This pared down but intensely exploding abstraction? I knew abstract art as controlled and cerebral, hard edged and clean. And what was this crazily direct/indirect way to write about it? This terse pared down hip-talk? What was this magazine typeset and published in Palma de Mallorca? I looked it up to find out where it was. Balearic Islands. Spain. I still didn’t know where it was. Spain meant Franco to me. A curtain had closed over the whole country after the loss of the Spanish Civil War.
But Black Mountain College was not in Spain. It was right here: Black Mountain, North Carolina. I looked that up too and I knew it well, but not as a place where a Robert Creeley wrote or a Franz Kline did paintings like these.
The summer Charlotte was dancing at Cherokee, my parents had taken me and my brother for vacation in the western part of the state. We were to stop and see her (inspection?) but first we drove all the way to Fontana Dam, at the Tennessee border. It was the largest dam and lake in the TVA system, which was then an icon of New Deal progress. My father was excited about this visit, where multidisciplinary regional planning had created flood control, hydroelectric power, and a place of affordable public recreation. That was the description.
The reality was hideous. The lake water levels had to be manipulated to serve the needs of a giant electric plant — resulting in a wide scar of rank red mud ringing the steep sides of Fontana Lake. There were plank walkways and floating docks to accommodate swimming and fishing, but swimming was spooky to say the least: once in the water, the bottom was hundreds of feet below. We stayed in the prefab village that had been erected for project workers and then revamped, minimally, as vacation cottages. We had planned to stay a week but left after one day. We roamed after that, stopping in creepy “tourist homes,” and mildewed motels. There were no predictably clean motel chains in those days. The one in the town of Cherokee had a huge fake Plains Indian-style teepee out in front, and the road through the reservation was chockablock with stands selling Indian souvenirs made in Japan and Taiwan. All styles and habits remote from the real Cherokee, who were agriculturists, weavers, and readers.
After our visit with Charlotte we had headed east, by-passing Asheville, and gone up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, down at Spruce Pine, and over to a state campground called Carolina Hemlocks — all of us agog at the scary mountains, the mild mountains, the cool, crazy changes.
From the campground we drove through the Toe River valley on Route 80 right past Rhonda Westall’s farm at Celo, where later my parents would spend every summer, and our daughters in the 1970s had idyllic vacations. From Celo it’s less than fifteen miles right over the Blacks to Lake Eden and the Black Mountain campus on the eastern side.
Everything in that Appalachian hemlock forest territory was the familiar sad beautiful bad roads and rickety bridges over rivers full of water-rounded boulders, was smoky blue mountains, was over-farmed flatlands, dotted with small churches and cabins with porches and many kids, kids with sores on their heads and calloused feet. Nothing therein had ever suggested the world I was discovering in books and films: Soutine, Morandi, Georgia O’Keefe — Anais Nin, Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Radiguet. Nothing in theBlack Mountain Review recalled them either, except that it did, and it danced on my senses, and drove me batty to get at it, to figure it out.
So after the collapse of my Playmakers job I wrote to the school for a catalog. I asked about summer school, scholarships, and work/study programs.
Arrived: no real catalog. A mimeographed description of a summer program. Two brochures for summer institutes from several years earlier. A printed application form. I filled it out. A formal typed letter arrived for me from Constance Wilcock, Registrar. Much later, I found out this was Connie Olson, using her maiden name. (“When the fort is under attack, and there are only three people left, they run around a lot,” said Ralph Maud of the Charles Olson Society.)
The UNC library yielded a little more: Several catalogs from the 1940s. Socialist kids building the campus. It radiated a kind of Putney School, Quaker wholesomeness. It was all about weaving, pottery, theater. It was only 300 miles to the west. I could get there on a bus!
I was supposed to work in the summer, not ask my parents for money for a school. I had worked since age twelve, first at babysitting, then clerking or typing things, saving up the money I wanted for books, records, art supplies. That summer I had about $70 banked. The roundtrip bus ticket would eat $20 of it.
I asked my parents if they’d ever heard of Black Mountain College.“Ar-rumph,” Lambert said. “Eric Bentley went there.” Radical theater was his image.
“Black Mountain girls do post-graduate work at the abortionist,” said Isabella. Sexual liberties was her image. Her prissy house-mother air was another of her change-ups, for she was the one who had taken thirteen-year-old me to foreign movies, to la Ronde, Devil in the Flesh, Les Enfants du Paradise.
More correspondence with Black Mountain followed. Was there a work/study program or could I get a part-time job in the town? More no’s; too far, not feasible. Finally I got a postcard, a BMC letterhead postcard, with the by-now familiar black circle logo, on which was typed: “Come with what money you have in hand and what you are used to for cooking. — Charles Olson, Rector.”
Too bad I kept none of those papers. The postcard was the best. I folded it up in tight little squares and tossed it. What I was used to for cooking was my mother. I wrapped up an old hotplate, two saucepans, some picnic cutlery, some clothes and stuffed my duffle bag.
That exact summer:
Gerry van der Weile
Grey Stone (really his name)
Mona (X) later Burns
Bill (X) — he came from an arts school in California
Herb (X) — a theater student from Pennsylvania
Joe Dunn — with wife Caroline
John Chamberlain — with wife Elaine
Resident but of uncertain status
Ed Dorn — with wife Helene
Wess Huss — with wife Beatrice: theatre
Stefan Wolpe: music, composition
Hilda Morley Wolpe: French, classics
Tony Landreau — with wife Anita: weaving, Albers color
Joe Fiore — with wife Mary: painting, life drawing
Charles Olson — with wife Connie: history, mythology, culture studies, reading
Robert Creeley: writing — but I recall that he came late that summer and didn’t hold classes until the fall, by which time I was back in Chapel Hill.
Which totals 31 souls, without counting a small tribe of children: The Huss daughter was pale, red-haired, freckled, and whiney. Katie Olson at three had a fatally predictive cry as her ultimatum: “My big papa says!” “My big papa will get you!” The older Dorn children, Fred and Shawnee, were Helene’s children, I believe; and Ed and Helene’s child together was baby Paul — but I may have this wrong. All of the Dorn kids were blue-eyed and tow-headed. And except for cherub Paul, who was eighteen months old, all the kids were wily, independent, and in command of an impressive vocabulary of swear words. Especially Fred, age six. I had read the word “fuck” in books but had never heard it said. The children playing outside my window could string together rhythmic sentences, employing “fuck” in all kinds of combinations.
Made sporadic appearances that summer
Fielding Dawson (just released from the Army)
Paul and Nancy Metcalf
Were talked about to the point of seeming present
Robert Duncan (He did come that fall)
Two infants were born that summer. John Landreau to Tony and Anita, Tom Fiore to Joe and Mary. Anita cracked up that summer postpartum, her schizophrenia finally too rampant to be explained away by Reichian theories or cooled out by sitting in her Orgone Box. John Chamberlain’s son Angus arrived somewhat later that year, perhaps early the next winter? I’m pretty sure that Elaine was pregnant by the end of August.
There were plenty of reasons for the anger in the sign posted above the school’s only and terminally busted washing machine: FUCKT. I washed my sheets and clothing by soaking them in a bathtub overnight and then stamping on them barefoot for twenty minutes or so. The rinsing and wringing took a bit of time and often the water was cold. All I had was me — no five-year-old, no infant, no household, and I was content to be a bit grubby. I thought of that the other day, watching Baghdad on TV. Only men and boys out on the street. No women. All of them wearing such clean clothes. Their white shirts were white; some lacked socks but no one was raggedy. Women at home carry Baghdad, with its fitful electricity, with the dust of destruction. They do it with washboards, kettles, and sad irons. They boil starch and tote jerry cans of kerosene.
Thirty-one souls present that summer. What an odd list I’ve set out for you to read, since the names might mean nothing to you. Except for the three, or the five, or the twelve that do — to some of you. Depends on why you’re reading this, doesn’t it?
I could tell you some thing, or many things, about every single name, including the people whose surnames won’t surface for me, and how or when or if they have come in and out of my life since that time.
Three Months, Part Two
Black Mountain College, 1955: a gut-busted ruin. About to recover? About to disperse? About to transform? The squalor didn’t shock me. I was used to southern intellectuals hunkered down in bottomed out chairs, living the country life with walls of dusty books and a pump in the kitchen. I liked the sweet quietude of a well-regulated outhouse where you tossed a small scoop of white lime and grey wood ash into the hole after use. Black Mountain College had flush toilets. But almost everything was battered.
“They’ve left,” said the buildings and grounds. And yet not.
“What do you mean?” “Do you mean it?” These two demands circled like twin lenses. Everyone was free to hold up everything said or done to them. Anything and anyone could be — was — fiercely scolded if the focus were sloppy or careless.
They hadn’t gone. They were here, talking fiercely. There was no shared unspoken agreement to spare the feelings of the less competent. They meant you to prepare yourself to mean something and then to challenge or defend it. They meant you to think of art or poetry or even politics as more important than the indexes of your personal importance. They believed the outside world was real and could be affected by things you did, things you thought. As for the obvious poverty, it didn’t automatically mean powerlessness. We were in a modern world where a moneyed class no longer had sole purchase on intellectual life. Independence could often mean poverty, especially for those who broke with the cannons of received opinion. Examples were everywhere: the hand-to-mouth struggles of Merce Cunningham and his troupe of dancers, the poverty of Willem deKooning, Philip Guston, and earlier still, of James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence. But poverty did not mean meaninglessness. It did not give a person a pass from obligations.
I walked through neck-high weeds to the library. Dissent. Origin. Black Sun. Carl Jung. Jane Harrison. Books from Black Mountain’s own print shop: The Double-Backed Beast, The Dutiful Son. Pages in beautifully made books, shining in the sunlight.
True enough, the pot shop and the print shop were closed and padlocked, and the librarian was gone too, for at least a year. As booklovers everywhere believe books belong to the person who loves them, so books had clung to their dearly beloveds, and the shelves, in their solitude, developed large and still larger gaps. Greedy pickers. I knew who some of them were.
The library door was warped and leaking, but it was not padlocked. Except for Rockwell Kent, I had never seen or read these books or magazines. Child of a bookman, from a household of thousands of volumes. I had roamed the stacks of Chapel Hill’s university library, and discovered only far away radicals, French anarchists, Italian surrealists, Russian nihilists. What was this dissident American world that shadowed — that might be able to overwhelm — the liberal world my father Lambert claimed?
The library building was a one-story white clapboard structure. I’m not sure if it was one of the military surplus prefabs, which were also low, one-story, utilitarian clapboard. Black Mountain had four or five of them as classrooms, housing, or art studios. The campus in Chapel Hill had scores, along with corrugated tin Quonset huts and amazingly elegant buildings put up in wartime for the Navy’s officer candidate school. We were just ten years from World War II. In Chapel Hill, Victory Village was a warren of prefab shacks for the families of married students on the G.I. Bill. Black Mountain had eight young men, for whom the G.I. Bill paid the tuition.
The summer I was there, Dan Rice and George Fick lived and painted in one of the prefabs down on the lower campus but the rest of the lower campus was closed, to save funds, I was told. The lower campus had those ample buildings that figure in so many of the photographs, the Adirondack-style lodges with porches, beamed ceilings, fieldstone fireplaces. I peered through the glass doors. We were asked to please stay out.
My Black Mountain started further up the hill, just past the swampy upper edge of Lake Eden. There was a turnaround by the Studies Building, and a concrete pit, empty, for storing coal. There were large common rooms on the ground floor of Studies, three or four classrooms, and a few faculty apartments at the back end. The balance of the building was taken up by individual student studies, two floors-full of minimal cells, each with a door, a window, and a plank desk.
“People have fucked in every one of them,” Gerry van der Weill said admiringly.
I picked out one that had been completely upholstered in wholesale egg crate dividers. The bumpy grey grids had been painted rose red on one wall and left as is elsewhere. It was otherwise clean and I liked the look. Some studies were filled with left-behind possessions, rotting mattresses, worn out boots. Those in use were piled with books, reams of typing paper, overflowing ashtrays. There was nothing in mine to supplement the overhead light bulb, so I took a gooseneck lamp from the empty room next door.
On the hill above the Studies Building were the scattered cottages where we all lived. They were winterized summer vacation houses of the same vintage as the big buildings on the lower campus, punctuated, here and there with modern constructions. Student-built experiments in simplicity. Plywood, cinderblock, corrugated metal, transparent plastic, unfinished plasterboard. The builders were gone and the materials they used were not new anymore. The buildings were damp and musty. Minimalism doesn’t do dirty very well. A dirty John Sloan isn’t the same order of offense as a Mondrian that needs a good cleaning.
Basil King, 1961
Just before classes were to begin there was a community party in a faculty apartment in the Studies Building. The room crackled, packed with people. There was homebrew in a vat. It was Tony Landreau’s place, someone told me, and that was Tony doing the dirty shag. A skinny man with half-closed eyes and loose blond hair swaying in the middle of the room. His dance was a half squat, butt wiggle and grind, punctuated by wild kicking, and it took a lot of space. He had a collection of thirties and forties jazz on hard twelve-inch records, 78’s. As soon as one spun to the end, Tony spun it off the player and across the room like a Frisbee, where most of them crashed and splintered. The whites of his eyes were pink with liquor and exercise.
“You gotta hear this one,” he kept yelling, and couples danced. Charles Olson danced with Connie. He bent over from the waist and she tiptoed so their heads connected, cheek to cheek, while his back extended like a tabletop. I figured his legs were three feet from hers. There was surely nineteen or twenty inches difference in their height, and 120 pounds in weight. Enough for a third person. Did the three of them go to bed?
Joe Dunn, who had been sent to pick me up at the Black Mountain Trailways stop, told me I’d be awestruck at his size, but I’d had an interview with him the day I arrived in which he remained seated, way way down in a sprung easy chair. He apologized for not getting up, because of bursitis, he’d said. So he has a big head, he’s a tall man, I thought. But at that party I got it. The dance was truly impressive.
Tony was stopped by two or three people from toppling an empty baby bassinette, the old wooden kind, a literal basket on tall legs. Then I realized the dark-haired silent woman sitting by a wall was very pregnant and that Tony was to be a father soon.
Tom Field was sick, he said. He hadn’t felt well in a week. He looked shamed. He was shamed. He was having bad dreams. When he was dying of cancer, in East/West House in San Francisco, just a few years ago, he made us promise that we wouldn’t worry. “I’ll be fine,” he said to me and Baz, with that same shamed grin.
Tom showed Tony two blackened puncture holes on the top of his foot, surrounded by an ugly red swelling, and mumbled, “I have these weird marks.”
“Man! You’re snake bit,” Tony hollered. He’d grown up in affluent Washington, D.C. suburbs and knew his snakes. He figured the rattler must have struck something else just shortly before the bite or Tom would have been a great deal sicker.
“But didn’t you notice getting hit?”
We all wanted to know.
Tom half whiney, half winsome wasn’t sure. Maybe at night? said Tom, the village idiot, grinning. His teeth were tiny and ever so slightly pointed. His eyes bashful in a broad, bland white-bread Midwestern face. Ralph Thomas Field. He was of uncertain sex (was he deucey? was he acey?) and he was ungainly, unfocused. A big unattractive body, but with large reserves of unapparent stamina. He was a painter. Ah, but he painted with the violence of an angel and the shrewdness of a politician. There was nothing idiotic, unfocused, or embarrassed about his work. See Vincent Katz’s Black Mountain Arts catalog, where two beautiful Field abstractions are reproduced. He could have received a rattler’s full force and overridden it, ashamed of being in pain. In fact, maybe he did. Ralph Thomas Field, artist.
There were no black people at Black Mountain College that summer, but Miles Davis haunted everyone. I heard him for the first time my first week. Someone had set a record player in a window up the hill — and at night, when the road was so dark you’d blink your eyes to make sure they were still open that spare, long, achingly sad horn split the air. Sections followed one after another, continued and continued. Movement in the face of troubles I couldn’t have described; movement, from moment to moment. Miles was everywhere. I wonder now if that record player was Stefan Wolpe’s?
These notes feel like postcards. Like sentiment in the mail. Greetings from the Pits. See the Jackalope! Worse than my personal sentiment, I know these little pictures startle and sadden Black Mountainites from earlier times. They remember a campus that worked, new buildings being built, fields that were mowed, the pot shop humming all night, musicians rehearsing in upstairs rooms.
In 1984, when George Butterick was still assuming he had 12,000 poems to write, he was advising Carrol Terrell on the Charles Olson volume for the University of Maine’s “Person and Poet” series. George wanted a Black Mountain reminiscence of Olson from me, or from me and Baz for the volume. I couldn’t do it. I begged off that we had been teenagers, Baz and I. I told George I’d attended BMC just three months, three months in a bad summer when Charles was away much of time. This was true. He was off begging for money to keep the school alive, and failing to get it, and trying too to sort out his domestic crisis with Betty Kaiser, who was pregnant with his son, Charles Peter, and with Connie, who was the mother of his daughter Kate. Connie was losing; Charles was losing what had been; the school was losing under Charles’ watch; Kate was to lose her big poppa; and the seersucker suit Charles wore to his meetings with foundation executives and education patrons in New York or Washington had already lost most of its shape. The closest I ever came to a class with him were some long evenings when he held forth in a booth at Ma Peek’s, over pitchers of beer, and my head for beer was weak, so I heard only some of it.
Besides, I was the wrong sex.
Besides, my relation to Charles would have been deeply qualified even if he had been less gender haunted. For different reasons, so were Basil’s. So what would I possibly write about him? I complained to George without really explaining.
“Just allow yourself whatever narrative play necessary,” George wrote me.
And next, “Maybe you and Baz could do Olson in dialogue. Mike Rumaker sent three pages on how he called Olson a whale. It’s your narrative-you I want. Don’t be burdened by the portentousness of it all. You, the great editor of The Drizz.”
(He meant Giants Play Well in the Drizzle — a newsletter poetry zine I was publishing at that time.)
Then it was January 1985, and the book was to go to press in six weeks: “End on your own narrative,” George demanded in an ultimatum letter. “End on Olson and Black Mountain, physically described. Six sentences. Fade Out. There has to be one overwhelming capture of Olson. I am intent on having this… ”
How could George know how complex this was? Baz and I had known George only a year, for me two meetings, for Baz four. Yes, many letters. But from the beginning of our friendship to its wretched end at George’s early death didn’t span two years. How could we tell or he know?
We did try the double interview approach. What I produced was not at all what George had in mind, not at all what Terrell would dream of accepting. George sent it back to me, and crossed out my words at the end where I wrote, “bad medicine.”
“You can’t end like that!” he scribbled.
Slightly shortened, here it is, as written in 1985:
Black Mountain Teens
Basil had arrived at Black Mountain when he was sixteen. He was there off and on again and again until he was twenty-one. That was a whole year after my summer. He was there the fall when the school closed and someone took that terrible photograph of the last class.
Baz and I never met there but when I came up from Chapel Hill in October to visit the guy I’d gone around with that summer, the two of us passed Baz in the hallway of the Studies Building. Leather jacket, sexy scowl, cocky walk, one shoulder up.
“Who’s that!” I asked.
“Just another painter from Detroit. You don’t want to know him.”
All these things frame me, or what I would talk about if I were talking about me. To talk about Charles, we decided to interview each other:
M: Charles is my father’s age. I always connected them. My father loves Eliot and fears Pound, and Olson the opposite, but politically, I call them both jingoists. “For us — and through us -America is coming of age.” Hear that Virgil Thompson music? Olson running toWashington to work for F.D.R.? Sure, I’d never met anyone like him, but he was recognizable to me from the beginning. The continuum stretches from John Jacob Niles to Buckminster Fuller, from the folklore movement to the millenialists. Lambert Davis (my dad) and Charles Olson were peers. No wonder Charles was so itchy-scratchy when they met.
B: He was itchy-scratchy about every dad. He was about mine. He went to work to charm my father the minute he saw that my dad had some understanding of politics and literature.
M: Put you in a funny position, didn’t it. It did me, when my parents arrived at Black Mountain. They were driving cross-country for a university press convention in Seattle. Lambert was president of the association that year. So they stopped by to check up on me. Lambert was the world of academic publishing — and he was looking with real horror at how rundown the school was.
But I believed Charles’ vision of the world. There was a war going on, not just between the generations, which there was, but essentially between the intellectuals willing to be radical — “to the root,” as Charles would stress — and everyone else who it seemed to me more or less did what they were told. It still seems so to me. And at the time, it matched emotionally how I viewed the war I was in for my own existence.
I thought Charles was on my side. Then all of a sudden, there he was, standing on the road, trying to impress my father.
I didn’t get it. I thought Charles would ignore my parents, that he’d take one look and know that my dad didn’t count for what he thought he counted for. Instead, there was Charles, standing in the driveway in front of the Studies Building, talking a mile a minute, and making a fool of himself. He was trying to overpower my parents. Wrong move! Even though Lambert’s neck was getting redder by the minute, he could calmly stand on his mainstream authority. He was the editor from Harcourt Brace, with a dozen years of New York publishing behind him. And Olson cared about that. I felt betrayed.
B: Well, the bottom came right out for me. I was mad at my dad, for his Zionism and his sentimentalism, and at Charles, for giving my father such a welcome. Charles invited him to become the school’s fund-raiser. He asked him to leave Michigan and join the Black Mountain community. I could see the next move already — kicking the Fiore’s out of Minimum House and moving my father and mother in. Now, where the hell would I have to go? To top it off, everyone was so impressed. I was getting patted on the back enviously. Oh, you’ve got such a great dad.
My mother loved Charles. She whispered to me: “The man’s brilliant!”
M: But what did we learn, now that we’ve got that off our chests?
B: (still angry) Not to drive a car the way he did!
M: I thought it was funny. When he got in that little car, the springs were on the ground and you’d see this great pumpkin head through the window and you couldn’t help wondering how the hell was all the rest of him in there. How could he shift? His knees had to be up against his chest.
B: It wasn’t the shifting, it was the talking. God knows why he didn’t get killed.
But I can tell you about what I learned. I don’t know if it was in class or at his house, but Charles asked how does one go about putting something together? How do you look at the materials? How do you get to the thing? I said, subtraction. He said, “No, no, no: division!” This is one of the most important things he ever gave me. It hit me between the eyes.
M: You mean the whole is always there?
B: You can keep dividing and dividing. You can keep going. Yes, the whole is still there. Maybe I would have gotten to that myself eventually, but he put the boot in