Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Black Mountain College Hits the Silver Screen

If there's any subject of local provenance that's been deserving of serious documentary coverage for decades, Black Mountain College qualifies. With bells. And an Oak Leaf Cluster. And now, Lights! Camera! Action! ... Well, all that's already happened, and April offers up a virtual visual feast for anyone interested in Black Mountain College and the artists who shaped it - and made it, strangely enough, the truly world-shaking, head-changing, perception-shaping phenomenon that it became.

First to hit the screens will be premiere of the film by Cathryn Davis Zommer and Neeley House: Fully Awake. Six years in the making, the film will at last premiere at a special screening at 7:00 pm on Thursday, April 19th, at The Fine Arts Theater. The film covers notable events at the college, of course, including the creation of Buckminster Fuller's first geodesic dome in 1948, and John Cage's multimedia happening in 1952, in which Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson, and others also played significant roles. The documentary's primary focus, though, is on the unique educational style that prevailed at the college, one that encouraged exploration and collaboration among those so fortunate as to wander through its doors. Fully Awake weaves interviews with students, teachers, and historians together with black and white archival photographs to tell the story of a school that might have existed only 24 years, but still played a major role in the world far beyond the Black Mountains that enfolded it. Indeed, its spirit is still kicking around.

A reception with the filmmakers and BMC alumni will follow the screening.
Tickets for the whole event are just $25, and the proceeds will benefit the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, downtown at 56 Broadway. The Center's film offerings have a history of selling out, but this time advance tickets are available at the Center, or by phone at 828-350-8484.

More information on the film is available at the Fully Awake website.

On other screens, the Asheville Art Museum continues its year of programming honoring Black Mountain College by bringing two more treats to town in April. On April 27th, at 6:00 pm, painter Ray Kass will speak about and show slides of John Cage's New River watercolors. Innovator that he was, of course, Cage's are not exactly your standard watercolors. No wispy panoramas. Cage set out to open the process of his painting to chance, in the same way he sometimes used chance procedures in the composition and performance of his music. Dr. Howard Risatti, writing on Kass' website explains Cage's procedure during his 1988 residency this way:
...stones collected from the New River were sorted into three groups according to size, which were separately numbered; numerous and varied brushes were divided into two separately numbered groups; likewise, feathers to paint with, colors and washes, and papers were also divided and numbered. In this way, chance procedures using pages of random numbers that were now generated by a computer program could be used to determine the specific materials utilized for each painting (e.g., which painting instruments, what type of paper and which colors, how many washes, which stones to paint around, where to locate the stones on the paper).

Cage, like many of his Black Mountain fellows, several of whom (including, for example, poet Jonathan Williams) also used chance procedures in their own work, was not interested in the illusory self as source of creative activity, as the conventional twentieth century paradigm structured that transaction. Instead, Rissati notes,
... although he was interested in expression, he was not interested in self-expression. From Zen Buddhism he came to believe that to truly experience the world around oneself one had to free the mind and the self from control by the ego. Ego, according to Zen, is the one barrier to experience because ego, which is connected to emotion, taste, memory, and desire, fixates on pre-conceived expectations and aesthetic possibilities, on the already known. In this way it prevents exploration and experience of the new. Chance, on the other hand, was a way to rise above control by the ego into new and unexplored territory. This could happen because once an overall format for a work was consciously created, chance allowed unexpected things to happen; chance allowed musical or visual "events" to occur, without the ego's intervention at the conscious level of taste or the subconscious level of desire. The artist then would be in a new situation which required a conscious, disciplined response. Chance, when understood properly, still involved discipline, discipline to not do just anything, but to free oneself from, as Cage said, "likes and dislikes" in order to explore and experiment. For Cage, chance was to be used as a discipline and not, as some people allege, as a way of giving up choices. "My choices," he said "consist in choosing what questions to ask."

Over the course of his four residencies, Cage experimented not only with using natural objects as compositional subjects, but also with using giant brushes so large he actually had to get inside them to paint, and then with using fired and smoked paper as the basis for his paintings. Risatti describes the preparation of the paper for his 1990 residency:

To fire and smoke the paper, assistants... had placed crumpled newspaper on dampened printing paper. After igniting the newspaper, they immediately threw a wool printing blanket over the flames and passed the entire ensemble through the printing press. The result was that the paper retained bits of the newsprint and the gray smoke from the fire.

Paper for a later work was prepared by using straw instead of newsprint; the straw provided a wider range of color and its stalks left traces on the paper which connected the painting, as the rocks had, to the natural world.

Ray Kass' paintings have been widely exhibited and he has received numerous grants and awards, including individual artist's grants from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is Professor Emeritus of Art at Virginia Tech, and founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop where Cage created the works Kass will address. If you'd like to get inside the head of John Cage for an hour, this presentation should provide as real an opportunity as you're likely to have on this plane.

The afternoons of the two days after Kass' presentation, April 28th and 29th, at 2:00 pm, the Art Museum will screen Josef and Anni Albers, Art Is Everywhere, shown earlier this year at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, to round out the April banquet of cinematic treats. If you missed the earlier showing, here's your second chance.

See you in front of the silver screen.

What: Premiere of Fully Awake
Where: The Fine Arts Theater
When: 7:00 PM, Thursday, April 19th.
Admission: $25 for the film and reception.
More information:, or call 828-350-8484.

What: John Cage's New River Watercolors with Ray Kass
Where: The Asheville Art Museum
When: 6:00 PM, Friday April 27th
More information: or call 828-253-3227

What: Josef and Anni Albers, Art Is Everywhere
Where: The Asheville Art Museum
When: 2:00 PM, Saturday, April 28th and Sunday, April 29th.
More information: or call 828-253-3227


This article originally appeared in somewhat different form in Rapid River for April, 2007.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Good Times in the Land of Knott

Earlier this year Bill Knott thought he might shut down his blog; he went so far as to delete many of the posts he'd put up (so some of the links in my earlier posts about him no longer work). He seems to have come to the realization, though, that killing the blog would have effectively left him silent, since he dislikes publishing otherwise, considers commercial book publishers vicious, etc. So he decided to keep on blogging.

He seems otherwise to be in a positive frame of mind these days. Where his blog previously used to lead with a compendium of negative reviews of his work and dismissive comments about him as a person and poet, he's now posted a gathering of the positive things reviewers and fellow poets have said about him over the years - things like

"[Bill] Knott was an incredibly important poet to me and still is; I think Bill Knott is a genius and probably the least known great poet in America. It's really kind of pathetic that he's not as well known as he was even thirty years ago because he's even better now."
—Thomas Lux, The Cortland Review (August 1999)

“Bill Knott is one of the best poets writing in America. Without question, he is the most original.”
—Kurt Brown, Harvard Review (Spring 1999)

"Bill Knott is a genius." —Tom Andrews, Ohio Review (1997)

“It is no accident that the major British and American poets of the 19th and 20th century were outsiders. . . . The most original poet of my generation, Bill Knott, is also the greatest outsider.”
—Stephen Dobyns, AWP Chronicle (1995)
And he's reposted much of his poetry - his Acting Poems, his Selected Love Poems, his Short Poems volumes One and Two, as well as worksheets for translations of Baudelaire and Montale. It's a trove of real value, some of the most distinctive poetry published in these states over the last forty years.

Having done a little translation myself, I'm fascinated by his worksheets for Montale and Baudelaire. In each, he provides a presumably provisional translation for the poem - here's Baudelaire via Knott


The ocean of verse has left in my chest
That stale ebb-tail taste of a bile blueplate;
Its heft sits bitter against my lips' crest;
Even my critics' deaths can't renovate

An appetite for this: acid reflux
My poems have all become, which in their prime
Fed vanity's veins and guts with grubsex
Enough to inspire one more ex-lifetime . . .

My heart? Is Heartburnsville. Landfill palace
Leveled ever since my fellow poets
Chewed its dumpster pews into prose-pellets.

Come share their bard-fare, their warmth and fireplace—
Eyes blazing like a holiday barrage,
They char my offal flesh long past garbage.

Followed by the workings that led him to his draft:

Enough to inspire another lifetime . . . /
Or more to inspire at least one lifetime . . .

Come share the warmth of their bard-fare fireplace—

The ocean of verse has left in my chest
The stale, ebb-tail taste of a bile blueplate—
Heft to my lips it's kept its saltcrust crest—
Heft/Half to my lips it heaves its saltcurst crest—
Half to my lips it heaves its bitter crest—
Half to my lips it hoists its bitter crest—
regurgitate heartgorged
Half to my lips regurgitates its crest—

providing a wonderful glimpse into the process of creating translations (or transversions, as Knott calls them), the complex decisions a poet must make in an effort to convey an original text into his own alien tongue.

Go check it out. Now. After all, there's no telling when it might all disappear again.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

We Generous: Sebastian Matthews Chronicles His Own Flight

A small world. You know how it works: You're walking up the stairs to Notre Dame in Paris, and you bump into your college roommate. Or you're in the check out line at the super market, and there she is, the woman you lived with when you were twenty-five. A friend put it so: there are really only a hundred people in the world, and you already know ninety-five of them. Sometimes that seems just right. Certainly, there are just a hundred people, give or take, who matter, whom one is given, for whatever reason, as companions for one's lifetime on the planet. And as you age and so gain deeper history (take my word for it) there are even more opportunities to re-encounter the past, or at least those who moved through it.

I first met Sebastian Matthews when he was quite young; when we talked over those early days a couple of years ago, we decided he must have been all of three. We didn't have much to say to one another at the time, of course. I was then working with his dad, Bill Matthews, and others, including Russell Banks, now a well-known, highly-regarded novelist, but then a graduate student at UNC in Chapel Hill, to put together a little magazine that was named for a song in Tristram Shandy, "Lillabulero". We actually met at a party, I think, celebrating the publication of an early issue, probably sometime in 1968, and he was likely in the arms of his mother. How time flies.

Sebastian's certainly flown miles and miles since then. Sunday, March 11th, he celebrated the publication of his first book of poems, We Generous, with a 3:00 reading at Malaprops. The book was ten years in the making, Sebastian says:
I wrote one of the jazz poems in 1997. The poem that opens the book, "Walking with Walter," was written soon after my father died, somewhere in early 1998. I jotted it in a journal during a teaching gig in New England. On the other side, I also have a few poems written in early summer of 2006.

I didn't set out to do this. An early incarnation of the book, titled The Green Man Walks Across America, was accepted for publication then held three years before being dropped. I worked on the book for a year before showing it to Red Hen. Then I had a year to rewrite the book again, and another year to tinker and add to and shuffle the thing. It's almost as if there are two books in there.
Perhaps that's why it's a large first book, tilting the scales at a substantial 108 pages.

The children of poets don't often grow up to be poets (Franz Wright, son of the late James Wright, is the sole exception who comes to mind), but in Sebastian's case, both of his parents were poets, so he probably had no chance otherwise. His father, William Matthews, went from Chapel Hill to a career in teaching and writing that included publication of a dozen books and recognition in many forms, including a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995. His mother, Marie Harris, was Poet Laureate of New Hampshire from 1999-2004. So how did he come to a life in poetry, I asked him a few weeks ago?
I grew up around [my parents'] books, peeking into their parties, sitting in on their classes and workshops, reading their work, listening to their records. If that doesn't prepare one for the life, I don't know what does.

But there were a few courses in college, and a teacher in particular, who turned me onto literature, both fiction and poetry. And attending Bread Loaf Writers Conference first as my father's guest (he was on faculty) then as a partial participant, then a full participant, etc.--that really opened me up to the writing life. I fell in love with it.

I remember once, as a teen, sitting in on a talk by John Gardner. I came out with my head in the clouds, even higher up there than usual.
As he has worked to become a poet, he's found that writing is integral to his life, and he can stay in touch with the voice of his imagination even amid the quotidian events of life:
Writing (and teaching) is my life. I try to find a balance. For the last 12 years, I have been teaching a lot to make money and learn the diverse skills it takes to teach writing.

Lately, I have been pulling back from teaching and focusing more on collaborative projects. I try to write every morning. But writing always weaves into my daily life.I walk the dog, get the boy off to school, read some student work, revise an essay, wash the dishes, visit a friend for lunch, tinker on a poem, etc. It all blends together.
And now the blend he's made of life rises into view, and he's ready to celebrate the collection that's emerged from his decade of work. Doing so, he'll afford us an opportunity to look back with him at his own past, and the occasions that have spoken to him - and through him - as poet.

Having gotten to know him and his work over the past few years, I count the fact that he's proved a recurrent fact of my own life a happy circumstance indeed. That he's taken wing on another stage of the long flight, one that's already seen an extraordinary ascent, is an occasion to celebrate.


This post first appeared, in somewhat different form, in Rapid River for March, 2007. The photo was taken by Sebastian's wife, Allison Climo.

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