The first time I met Robert Creeley was at a reading in the 1990's at Saint Marks in Manhattan. It was a period of my life where I wrote bad poetry, tried hard to figure out my purpose in the world, and often bungled things along the way. I was barely an adult. After the reading, I spoke to Creeley on several occasions through phone conversations and an exhaustive series of emails that continued into the 2000's. He had a lyrical style to his emails, often employing "like they say". He was always happy to render his opinion of what I was writing, and was the first person who didn't stroke my ego. It's hard to believe, as I think about our correspondances that he's really gone. We had our ups and downs, but ultimately Bob proved to be the sort of person who really gave a damn. Bob Creeley died in 2005.
The following interview originally appeared in 1998 in The Cortland Review during J.M. Spalding's term as Editor-in-Chief.
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 publish...."
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 to—it's something nothing else quite satisfies. One has to do it—compulsively. 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 Corman—and 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 book—a 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 printing—but 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 years—check 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, really—that 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 thought—even me! To publish Théophile Gautier's The Hippopotamus took obvious heart—or 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 inPaterson: "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 to—the 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 attention.
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?
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!