J.M. Spalding: Do you remember, when you were still at the beginning of your
affair with poetry, what poems gave you a magical feeling when you read them?
Robert Creeley: First were the poems that either
were wild, melodramatic tales, like Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman," or were
simply fun, like James Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphan Annie." In some real way
I am leery of that emphasis "great poetry" because I haven't the least idea
whether these poems were such, either then or now. I like Pound's sense, from
"Agricola," something like "ut doceat, delectet et moveat"that
poetry affects us either by teaching, by delighting, or by moving us. Presumably, great
poems may or may not do that, if the judgement which has so nominated them is only one of
isolated interests. Perhaps it makes more sense to stay with Robert Graves' proposal, that
one could tell a good poem by the same sense one used to qualify good fish.
J.M. Spalding: Who are some of the up-and-coming
writers that interest you?
Robert Creeley: There are always far more than
anyone such as myself can keep track of. The old are hardly the best judges for the young.
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new." I remember Pound saying years
ago that after 50 one can't keep one's eye on all the sprouting corn. After 70 it's hard
enough even to see it.
I think quickly of two young writers who interest me and always
have: Jennifer Moxley, Vincent Katz. Susan Howe (who I have to remember is not young!)
interests me always. Alice Notley, Leslie Scalapino. To you they might seem already too
settled. But some writers, as Robert Grenier, are never so "done" as that
presumes. They are always at work, on the way. Writers as Duncan McNaughton still wait for
a defining audience.
J.M. Spalding: Poets look for recognition and
acceptance of their work, which is why they try to publish their work. What was your first
experience with acceptance and recognition?
Robert Creeley: Is that why poets write, do you
think, "for recognition and acceptance of their work?"
J.M. Spalding: I said, "why they try to
Robert Creeley: Williams says he'd rather go off
and die like a sick dog than be a well-known literary person in America. A poll taken on
the streets of Manhattan discovered that less than one percent could tell who Norman
Mailer was. Poets write, I do believe, because they have toit's something nothing
else quite satisfies. One has to do itcompulsively. I remember Carl Rakosi saying
before we were to teach at Naropa some years ago ( we were musing over just how to
proceed): "Well, the last thing poets need is encouragement!" They'll do it come
hell or high water. My own "acceptance and recognition" came from peers, as
Olson, Duncan, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Cid Cormanand elders like Williams
and Zukofsky. The company is what matters.
J.M. Spalding: What has changed in your work
between Echoes and Life & Death?
Robert Creeley: Not a great deal. Perhaps a
continuing relaxation, call it, an increased belief that says only being in the world
matters at all and that it means, literally, finding one's way to others. I realized that
just as childhood is lonely without other children to be with, old age is awful in
isolation. One doesn't want to be stacked like planes waiting to take off, only with one's
"peer" group. So anyhow that comes into this last booka poem like
"Histoire de Florida." There in Florida I thought a lot about the social facts
of age, seeing us milling confusedly in supermarkets, else risking life and limb trying to
negotiate parking lots in our oversized cars.
J.M. Spalding: Since the dawn of the Internet,
literary magazines have popped up all over. What has resulted is a larger and more diverse
audience. Do you feel that this has weakened print magazines, or that it will?
Robert Creeley: I can't tell you how much I like
and respect the Internet. For example, Loss Glazier, the friend who runs the Electronic
Poetry Center here at the University at Buffalo, just told me it's had a half-million hits
in the last quarter year and may well make a million by year's end. "Can you dig
it," like they say. It's the openness and "democracy" of the possibility
that pleases me. When I think of how constricted and meager the possibilities were for
printing a magazine in the '40s, I cannot believe that anyone in his or her right mind
would want to return to such limits. I love printingbut I know from all the
experience of my life that it has always been a limit for the publishing of poetry. Poetry
didn't sell. The characteristic book was too short. Do you realize my elders, such as
Williams and Stevens, not to mention Zukofsky or Oppen, were managing with editions under
a thousand copies in some cases? I think a printing of The
Waste Land in an edition of three thousand copies kept it in print for ten
yearscheck Robert von Hallberg's book!
J.M. Spalding: What editors look for is
originality. Ideally, they look for work that says something that hasn't been said,
something new. But not all editors are the same. When you were an editor, what did you
look for in terms of substance and style from a poet submitting to you?
Robert Creeley: Something I liked,
reallythat got to me, seemed particular, original or not. Often it did seem
"new" in that way, but it was finally a good deal more than that. An integrity
of means, a clear authority (as in the word "author")I don't recall a
didactic program, despite what one might have thoughteven me! To publish Théophile
Gautier's The Hippopotamus took obvious heartor dear Alfred Kreymborg.
J.M. Spalding: Very often a poem is dead as it
is being written, or, simply put, despite substance, the poem just isn't good. Every poet
has a different theory as to why that is. What is your theory?
Robert Creeley: Williams puts it best in Paterson:
"Because it's there to be written...." If one only wrote "good" poems,
what a dreary world it would be. "Writing writing" is the point. It's a process,
like they say, not a production line. I love the story of Neal Cassidy writing on the bus
with Ken Kesey, simply tossing the pages out the window as he finished each one. "I
wonder if it was any good," I can hear someone saying. Did you ever go swimming
without a place you were necessarily swimming tothe dock, say, or the lighthouse,
the moored boat, the drowning woman? Did you always swim well, enter the water cleanly,
proceed with efficient strokes and a steady flutter kick? I wonder if this
"good" poem business is finally some echo of trying to get mother to pay
J.M. Spalding: If you were stuck on a remote
desert island and could only have three books (excluding anthologies) and three music
records, what would they be?
Robert Creeley: I think I'd play it like
Robinson Crusoe, from the beginning. I can't make choices of such kind.
J.M. Spalding: What would you do if you were
stuck on a desert island with Rod McKuen?
Robert Creeley: Talk about Williams among much
else. I heard him once on a talk show make very clear how much he liked Williams and how
much he thought he had learned from him. He's a pro and I respect him.
J.M. Spalding: What does the future hold for
Robert Creeley: More, I hope. I think now of how
poignantly Charles Olson's "I'll hate to leave this earthly paradise" does
sound. But thinking of it hardly helps. Onward!
Robert Creeley Interview
TCR April 1998 Feature