"All My Poems Are Social Crucifixions": A Conversation About Robert Creeley's Letters

It is impossible to conceive of post-modern poetry without Robert Creeley. And poetry -- in whatever iteration it is in right now -- has not been the same since Creeley died in 2005.

Thankfully, the poet's work still has much to teach us, and works like Creeley's Selected Letters, edited by Peter Baker, Kaplan Harris and Rod Smith, offer new opportunities for deep engagement. The collection stands as both a shadow autobiography of one of the most influential writers of the past 50 years (poet or otherwise), as well as a kind of book of meditations to be opened and perused at random intervals.

Harris and Smith did a terrific job editing the Selected Letters, and it was my pleasure to discuss Creeley's work with them.

Travis Nichols: I find I go back to books of correspondence almost as much as I go back to books of poems -- Jane Bowles' letters, James Schuyler's letters and George Orwell's, just to name a few. Were there collections you looked to as guides for this work?

Rod Smith: The New Directions selected Pound and Williams were two that I had in mind pretty much from the word go. We looked, of course, at a lot of collections of correspondence thinking through the really various ways of going about it. Varying degrees of annotation, editorial insertion, etc. The Oppen letters Duplessis did such a fabulous job on have long been a favorite of mine, Bill Morgan's Ginsberg another.

One choice we made though which is not the norm, was to include letters only in their entirety -- not to excise at all, not to consider anything extraneous. Either the entire letter was in, or not. This lets in the quotidian in a way I think works well with Creeley's style and sensitivities. It also insists on the moment of writing as a whole -- the rhythm of the writing can only be really seen when you're given the entire composition -- and in Creeley's case the prose is often very rhythmic, expansive, gestural -- the rhythm at times actually leading to the thought rather than having a thought and then expressing it.

TN: I'd imagine keeping the letters in their entirety also presents a problem, because Creeley is such a prolific writer of both public work and private correspondence. There is so much to go through! It amazes me you were able to get so much into what is a relatively condensed book. How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out?

KH: One of the first steps was to score the letters with a ranking system of sorts. Automatic high points went to letters where Creeley comments on other people's work (e.g. a long reaction to the manuscript of LeRoi Jones's Blues People), describes personal encounters, reaches across generations, or just sets things in motion. Creeley moved often -- he was very nomadic -- and his most poignant letters are often those in which he describes a new landscape: Burma, Aix-en-Provence, Majorca, Black Mountain, Guatemala, Vancouver, Bolinas, Buffalo, Maine, Helsinki, Providence. In the long letters from Guatemala, for example, Creeley tell his friends about the lush geography, the cost of living and the local politics all in the space of a few paragraphs. The letters are almost an autobiography in this respect. We certainly favored letters that anchor his voice in history, defined not just by the headlines, but also the changing social fabric - so for example the letters show that Albuquerque police frequently harassed Creeley for looking too much like bearded hippie. And we favored letters about his writing process. But the scoring was only the first step. When we compiled the best of the best of the best, we overshot the length limit and had to make painful cuts.

TN: That reminds me of something another poet said to me when I was in my early 20s, which was, in effect, that Creeley might have been interesting at one time, but he had become just another straight, white, male establishment poet and thus no longer at the margins where poetry belonged. At that time, Creeley had a seemingly secure job and a seemingly secure life in Providence, so I could see where this guy was coming from, no matter how much I disliked his premise. But these letters show just how far outside the mainstream culture Creeley actually was for most of his life. Do you see his outsider status as being important to his legacy?

KH: The letters have made me appreciate the ways that Creeley was exactly both insider and outsider depending on who was looking at him. The terms and systems they represent were often fungible across the decades and the company he kept, so for example William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound were incredibly responsive to Creeley's letters at age 23 partly because he had been to Harvard (granted he flunked out), but also partly because he was a poultry farmer who could quote Hannah Arendt.

For much of his life paying the bills and supporting his family weighed heavily. In the 1970s he describes a telling incident when the local "culture-vultures" (art patrons) of Buffalo wouldn't let him use the main bathroom at a party. Even when the last 15 years of his life saw him become a founding member of the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo, supporting a steady stream of younger poets who had no reputation at all, he was still regularly treated as sketchy by prize juries and tastemakers.

RS: I do see his outsider status as important to his legacy -- Kap mentions his writing to Pound and Williams at age 23 -- well, they were outsiders at that point in terms of their aesthetics. This is who he was, always supporting those that were pushing new possibilities within the writing -- whether Olson, Levertov, Ginsberg, Berrigan, etc. -- or later, Bernstein, Howe, Watten, Gizzi, Jarnot, etc.

TN: One thing that makes his work so important to so many poets is that it is "about" cognition, about thinking, not about having thought. In some of these letters we get to see even more of this thinking on a larger scale -- did either of you find yourselves mesmerized by his thinking process about certain things? Or, maybe a better way to phrase this question, what's your favorite thing Robert Creeley ever thought?

RS: I find myself with several answers to this question. First, as alluded to above -- I want to say it's not what he thought about, but how. Second, of course there are favorite passages, even one-liners -- the famous "Form is never more than extension of content" of course, but also, to Ginsberg "All my poems are social crucifixions, Allen. You know that . . ." and many others. There are also the great discussions of poetics with Levertov, Olson and Williams, the comedic back and forth with Dorn and Grenier, the intensely loving exchanges with Bobbie Louise Hawkins during their long slow break-up, etc. etc. Any case, and finally, a favorite discovery was the following unpublished short poem, written shortly before leaving San Francisco for New Mexico in 1956:


It must be horrible
when you are dead
to know you planned just a little
too far ahead.

KH: To echo Rod, I keep returning to the letters that wrestle with poetics. Creeley and Kenneth Rexroth battled over the value of Theodore Roethke's work after Creeley's negative appraisal in Black Mountain Review. Rexroth defends Roethke partly by apologizing for his mental illness. Creeley's response stresses the societal "sickness" that he thinks is rendered inaudible in Roethke's poetry. In Creeley's estimation, Roethke is "a man who has profited by every fucking filthiness of literary practice in the US today." During a friendlier exchange with Denise Levertov, he footnotes one of her poems almost line by line in order to think about the limits of poetic metaphor and image. I'd also refer readers to his letters with Williams about prosody and Tom Clark about Language Poetry.

TN: Which contemporary poets, if any, do you feel are carrying forward Creeley's tradition?

KH: Big question! Creeley was a multi-hemispheric poet. He traveled, his work traveled, translations of his work travelled. The letters are like those red-dotted lines that show travel on a map in the Indiana Jones movies. Even starting to list the scenes where he left a mark that continues to this day is an embarrassing exercise in wondering whose names I forgot to mention... Another way I think about your question is to ask what "tradition" meant for Creeley, and then ask who captures that sense now.

Creeley wrote what must have been a blistering letter to his friend George Butterick for editing a selection of his poetry that overemphasized the 1950s at the expense of later developments. Creeley advised him to "try to track subsequent activity as more than echo of that first disposition. 'Twenty years have passed' -- like they say. Not that I got better or worse, but did seemingly do something else?" Creeley championed the ruptures in poetry, not only the "echo," but the "something else." March 30 will be the ten-year anniversary of his death. If he were still around, I can imagine him seeing that "something else" in the most enlivening and polarizing poets of 2015 -- and such a mix would be what locates them in a "Creeley tradition," rather than a style or school or movement brand name.

Rod Smith is a poet, editor and bookseller based in Washington D.C. Kaplan Harris is an editor, critic, curator and professor based in Buffalo, New York.