When I got word from Joyce at Cuneiform that it might
be possible to do an email interview with poet Robert Creeley in 2002; I jumped
at the chance, and remain grateful that I did. Mr. Creeley was gracious, eloquent
and generous in his responses.
Robert Creeley was born in Arlington, Massachusetts,
on May 21, 1926, he passed away after a brief illness on March 30, 2005. He
attended Harvard University from 1943 to 1946; taking a break from his studies
from1944 to 1945 to work for the American Field Service in Burma and India.
In 1946 he published his first poem, in the Harvard magazine Wake. In 1949
he began a correspondence with William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. In
1950 he became acquainted with the poet Charles Olson. In 1954; Olson invited
Creeley to join the faculty of Black Mountain College and to edit the Black
Mountain Review, he later left and moved to San Francisco, where met and befriended
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other writing peers with whom he retained
a lifelong correspondence. He lived at a poultry farm in New Hampshire, in
France in the early 1950s, in Majorca Spain in the Balearic Islands, Bolinas
in California, and Latin America among several other places. He published
over thirty volumes of verse; is also the author of the novel, The Island
(1963), the autobiography called Autobiography (1990) for Hanuman Books, and
an anthology of short stories, The Gold Diggers (1954).
Do you feel that poetry or art of any kind can ever have a singularly specific
R.C.: Best sense I know of is Wittgenstein's: "If you
give it a meaning, it has a meaning." There is certainly a general "address"
or information the various arts can have, which points their activity to this
or that use or recipient. But it is still a "just add water" circumstance
-- it takes a person or "audience" to complete the circle, and what
that element constitutes, and/or brings to the table, is forever a variable.
G.P.: How important or useful is dreaming
to you, your work, or culture at large?
R.C.: I remember from proverbial youth Yeats' "In dreams
begin responsibilities." Dreams would seem to me the most active presence
of one's imaginal life, one's apprehension of the events of one's life as
against their didactic or intellectual "understanding". Paradoxically,
I have always little if any memory of my own dreams -- but fellow poets as
Robert Duncan, Charles Olson and Denise Levertov all used dreams as primary
source and sponsor of their work.
Besides your fairly recent recorded collaboration with Chris Massey, Steve
Swallow, David Cast, and David Torn for the Have We Told You All You’d
Thought To Know? (Cuneiform), you have a long history of collaborating with
artists and musicians, what is it that you enjoy about the collaborative process?
R.C.: I like, first of all, the company it means. I don't
really buy the stance of the poet as necessarily a loner -- what Dylan Thomas
makes him or her in his poem, "In my craft or sullen art..." Even
more to the point, such company gives one a far wider and more diverse sense
of possibilities, brings in so much one could not have thought of by oneself.
For example, the poet W.C. Williams says, "A new world is only a new
mind." Collaboration makes that "new mind" possible.
Can or does art make our lives better?
R.C.: Again, it's most simply put as poet Charles Olson has
it: "Art is the only true twin life has." I suppose one would have
to begin by figuring out what's meant by "better" -- more money?
less smog? -- before any answer could be particular. In any case, art's the
intimate and also the universal articulation of "humanness" -- it
makes manifest what it feels like to be human.
Do you pray?
R.C.: No -- I have no specific religious commitment or habit.
Since I’ve heard your voice reading your stuff, I now hear your voice
in my mind when I read your writing. Have you ever noted this sort of thing
yourself regarding other writers?
R.C.: Absolutely. Williams, for example -- or Olson, or Pound,
Stevens and many more. One's so reading makes clear how one hears the work
oneself, how it's felt and sounded.
How much of the poet is the voice?
R.C.: For the kind of poetry I've been fact of, I'd think
a lot -- just that it's a poetry based in large part on sounds and rhythms.
"Voicing" it is the final act, so to speak. A few years ago I remember
hearing Miles Davis being interviewed by a French journalist, who had come,
like they say, to his last question -- which was, "How do you like your
instrument?" At first Miles Davis couldn't understand quite what he was
being asked. So the fellow repeated it, saying "Do you like the instrument
you play?" At that point Miles Davis answers with some real emphasis,
"Man, it's my voice!" "Poetry" is my voice in like sense.
I’ve read your positive remarks regarding the internet. Do you feel
that email has to the potential to revive letter writing as a widely practiced
form of communication?
R.C.: Someone was saying email is much like the 18th century
habit of sending a note crosstown to a friend to say one would be late for
dinner. It's quick, it's casual, it can take a great variety of tones sans
confusion, it gets there in an eye blink. What better? I think it beats the
phone because you don't have to be there when it comes -- or play phone tag
for hours after, or get caught when you don't want to say anything, etc.,
etc. I don't think it can replace or revive old fashioned letter writing,
which was a great art, but it certainly boosts communication on the instant.
There are moments in some of your poems that feel like song lyrics, with their
rhyming rhythms. Have you ever written songs?
R.C.: I sure would like to -- and a few years ago tried to
write some for a proposed collaboration with sculptor John Chamberlain and
his very pleasant son Jesse, a solid drummer. The plan was I'd do the lyrics,
John would do the visuals, and Jesse would do the music and arranging. But
I never got there with anything enough. The one I remember is called "Lights"
and goes, like they say, "I could get/all of it.//I could say/ anything.//
I wish I could/just get even." Then the great refrain: "I'm here./I'm
still here." All this was supposedly for MTV yet. Anyhow I'd much rather
listen to the gang singing "The Old Rugged Cross" -- or else Sheila
Jordan singing "Nowhere," which she makes so much the "poem"
I was trying to write then.
Do you have a ghost story?
R.C.: I'd be too scared to tell you.
There's something jazzy about your work at times; it has these sort of musical
movements, is jazz consciously a part of your art?
R.C.: It's not a determined part, call it -- I don't set
out with "jazz" as a context or material in mind. But the very fact
that it's been a primary music for me all my life from time I first heard
it in the 40s argues it's there as a given, always. My sense of rhythm comes
from that fact in large part -- in poetry I "hear" continuity, time,
phrasing in much the same way as I do in jazz.
The recording with Chris Massey, Steve Swallow, David Cast, and David Torn
that became the Have We Told You All You'd Thought To Know? CD, is a live
gig, how did that come together?
R.C.: Chris Massey, who comes from Buffalo and was then living
in Switzerland (and still is), was looking for something that could get him
home for a visit. We had met briefly in Buffalo just as he was finishing school
and I had recorded a few poems for him to work with -- which he did, though
the work has never been released. Anyhow I got him and the terrific gang a
venue here in Buffalo -- and had gone over to get them located and all --
it was now about five in the
afternoon -- and thought to introduce them and possibly to read a poem or
two as complement to what I presumed would be their evening. But then they
asked me to "improvise" with them,
with the texts I had with me in the characteristic notebook I take with me
for my own readings. So I did -- altogether by ear, altogether sans any determined
"plan" though I had the texts of the various poems, or pieces of
poems, which I read in hand. Finding when and where to read them was the question.
And, what kind of experience was it?
R.C.: I had never really ever done anything quite like it
-- not so sustained and not with such accomplished people. Steve I knew from
time in Bolinas years before -- and Chris as said -- but that was the first
time I'd met either David Torn or David CasT. We had two more scenes together
this past late summer -- it was great! I don't know how the audience felt
-- the last was a classic cluster of elders and I think their last entertainment
had been an evening of Brahms or some such. We went on seamlessly for a very
Is the Futurities album you recorded with Steve Lacy still in print? And what
was that experience like?
R.C.: Just checking at Amazon.com, it says "Futurities
Part II" is still available, meaning "Futurities Part I" is
sadly not. (It was a twofer CD.) I never got chance to see the full performance,
with Ken Noland's painting as setting and Douglas Dunn and Elsa Wolliaston
dancing. I wish someone would get it over here -- as the note at the Amazon
site also says. For me it was a pure gift, beginning to end. I had already
written the poems Steve uses and Irene Aebi is the terrific "voice"
they are given. Sprechstimme like Brecht!
I'm re-reading your Autobiography that was published by Hanuman Books back
in 1990, what do you think of this book a dozen years later?
R.C.: I love that book and it's even gone into other languages,
like an edition in German. A friend noted I didn't once mention my wife's
name or where I really live -- it was written in Helsinki in 89 -- but I guess
I wanted them to be off the so-called scene. Anyhow I like it and I very much
like that one can hold this "Autobiography" in the palm of one's
After 30 years I've recently been re-reading Richard Brautigan’s stuff,
I kind of think it was Ianthe’s book You Can't Catch Death that led
me back to his work. What do you think of Brautigan’s writing?
R.C.: I like it very much -- he's an old time "American
Classic" -- like Mark Twain, one of his very real heroes, and Melville
and Kerouac, not to mention Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. He's such a deft
and determined writer and I love his droll and very particular wit, When I
first read Trout Fishing in America -- Donald Allen and I were co-editing
New American Story for Grove Press -- I was in a foul mood and just didn't
get it, and thought, "Here's another shaggy dog story" -- which,
of course, it was. But what a shaggy dog story! Anyhow I not long after got
with it, and Richard became a close friend thereafter for all his dear life.
In other interviews you've quoted Bob Dylan's lyrics; what do you think of
R.C.: I was just talking about him for a documentary Griffen
Ondaatje is making out of Toronto -- he thinks to call it "Complete Unknown"
and it's, like, going to find out what you can about Dylan with your own ways
and means. Anyhow, he stays put for me, and has since the early sixties. He's
got a great ear and he knows "how to play an instrument" -- as my
mother would say. It doesn't get any better than that.
G.P.: I mentioned that you used rhyming
in your work to my friend Jonathan Richman, and he said; “He better
watch it, he could get kicked outta the club.” Why rhyme?
R.C.: Tell him, I want to be just like Jonathan -- I have
sure heard him rhyme! Rhyming's a way of dancing in a circle, a loop, staying
in a spot that keeps a constant, and working changes thereon or in. Like "Look
out kid/It's somethin' you did/God knows when/ But you're doin' it again"
-- since we'd been talking about Dylan. Especially old now, it gives me a
handhold, a return, from and to where I seem to be. I am certainly not going
anywhere (or no place I like to think about) in a hurry.
Have you seen any good movies lately?
R.C.: Sad to say, I haven't. Friends here run a series of
old classics that are terrific, but little I've seen that's recent has been
worth it. It seems a curiously empty time.
You had an interesting relationship with the Beat scene without actually being
a Beat writer yourself; you knew most of those people. Why do those voices
still echo so clearly today?
R.C.: I think writers as Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac are
the least removed from the common world by fact of being writers, that is,
they are seemingly the least "literary" despite the fact that in
each case they were absolutely knowledgeable of all the writing particular
to their own. Allen could quote by the hour, Gregory knew more about Shelley
than I ever will, Jack built his own writing on what he found in writers like
Thomas Wolfe and so on. But people reading any of the three had no sense they
were 'up there' in some professional box. They were next door, like anyone
else, familiar and accessible -- and possessed of the same confusions, hopes
and possibilities of a common world. One didn't and doesn't feel dumb reading
them. Riding on a train in Italy just now, I saw the very usual and fortyish
woman sitting across from me was reading a copy of On The Road in translation.
Jack has four titles on the 'hundred books' of the twentieth century list,
more than Hemingway I believe. People have taken him in like Mark Twain.
Describe Kerouac and who he was?
R.C.: Best put as what William Burroughs said of him, he
was first and foremost a writer. Writing was his life. When I knew him in
the mid-fifties, he was intense, shy, extremely attractive and also vulnerable.
Joyce Johnson gives a clear sense of him, I think. Otherwise I've written
several prefaces and introductions for his books, so simplest to use those
for whatever they are
worth, just that the books themselves are terrific: Book of Blues; Good Blonde;
Book of Dreams; Orpheus Emerged -- with one now to come, Book of Sketches.
G.P.: How often are your poems written
to, or directly inspired by a specific individual? Sometimes your poems feel
R.C.: In writing I have a company, people I think of as there,
and whether or no a poem is addressed to them, or one of them, directly, they
are always in mind. The people I live with are those most present.
In difficult times, what renews or inspires you?
R.C.: Just fact of being alive, wanting, as Ted Berrigan
said, "to take the whole trip." Why stop now, etc.
What's best about being your age?
R.C.: At this point (76), there's not much good about it
at all. Anytime after fifty one recognizes that one's body has become phenomenal
again, much like it was in adolescence -- it's unstable in that way. Unanticipated
things begin to happen -- and there is no simple 'future' to depend upon.
For example, when one's, say, twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five, what you
go to bed with is what you get up with, 'yourself' -- and you can pretty much
depend on it, barring colds and the like -- if you're lucky. But after fifty
things aren't at all that stable, beginning with shifts in eyesight, hearing,
physical movement, memory, and so on. Like any machine one's body is beginning
to wear out and that's not a happy experience. Otherwise what most improved
for me with age was confidence -- I felt at last at ease with the particular
world I lived in, was no longer unsure or intimidated in ways I had been when
What's the best thing about people?
R.C.: That they are people, just like oneself.
My Mother recently died. What do you think is the meaning or use of mourning?
R.C.: All else of its own necessity rushes on. Charles Olson
has a line that goes something like, 'The world does not wait for flowers...'
But people do and can 'wait' -- and first of all it's a respect of the person
who's no longer there, an acknowledgement that they have gone, a recognition.
It's also a permission for ourselves to feel at a loss, confused, resentful,
despairing -- to have a place' to feel those things. Most, I respect the Jewish
tradition of committing one year to mourning, then ritually ending it. People
who cannot let go are not happy. They can't recognize that, put most simply;
Do you have to write?
R.C.: I do -- in fact, I think if one doesn't have to write,
there's little point in doing it, especially for poets. I remember an old
time poet Carl Rakosi saying, just before were both to teach workshops at
Naropa, "Well, the last thing they need is encouragement." Perversely
enough, I think that's a true statement -- for poets at least.
Has a poem ever come to you almost like the word before the thought? Like
your understanding of the poem only came to you after you read it back to
R.C.: It comes almost always that way -- much like Williams
makes clear in that interview with Mike Wallace he uses in "The Desert
Music," "Because it's there to be written." Another way of
putting it is, how can I know what I think until I say it? For me the words
come first and it's them I follow. Again as Williams says, "But the words
which came to me, made solely of air..."
How different was the person that returned to Harvard from a year with the
American Field Service than the one that he had been before?
R.C.: Very, very different -- forever. When you recognize
that someone's out to kill you sans any reason other than a "war,"
someone who has no other identity for you, nothing remotely 'personal', like
they say, other than he or she's in the so-called army, that really changes
things forever -- makes vividly clear how immensely 'ideas' distort the otherwise
real world, how ridiculously humans will slaughter one another in places as
bizarre as those you see in "Apocalypse Now" just because they're
told to. So I went still thinking persons in positions of authority must in
some respect have responsible information and capability and came back recognizing
that that was not always if ever the case. Such belief was finally simple
laziness -- "Let George do it." In any case, it broke my belief
that the world was 'good' in any sense, or communally determined. Instead
I saw the greed, the incompetence, the smugness, the indifference which have
changed so little from that day to this. Wendell Berry said there were two
things that spooked him about usual human assumptions. One was that people
believed they knew what was good for themselves. The other was that they thought
what was so presumed to be good was also good for everything else in the world.
Neither could be farther from the truth.
So much of what is essential about existence is nearly indescribable; do you
ever consider “describing the indescribable”, as a part of your
R.C.: I don't "describe" anything. I do it.
Are you more blessed or cursed?
R.C.: I'm lucky. Happy because things keep happening. That's
Robert Creeley’s website: